Connecticut lawmakers grapple with education funding plan

By SUSAN HAIGH
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s system for distributing public education funds has been a source of complaints for years, with cities and towns arguing that the complicated formula is unfair, inadequate and underfunded.

Now facing a projected $1.7 billion budget deficit and a judge’s recent ruling that parts of the funding system are unconstitutional, state legislators are under pressure to finally overhaul the 28-year-old Education Cost Sharing grant.

With limited financial resources, the General Assembly is grappling with how to meet Connecticut’s state constitutional obligation to provide all students with adequate education.

How and whether that will happen during this year’s regular legislative session, which ends June 7, remains unclear.

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COURT RULING

In September, a state judge ordered Connecticut officials to develop plans to revamp the Education Cost Sharing grant, saying a huge gap in test scores between students in rich and poor communities shows parts of the system are unconstitutional. Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher called on state officials within six months to revamp the state funding formula, develop a statewide high school graduation standard and make eighth-graders show they have acquired skills to move on to high school.

The ruling stemmed from an 11-year-old lawsuit filed against the state by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, a nonprofit group that includes cities, towns, local school boards, parents groups and public school students. The decision is currently on appeal and arguments aren’t expected to begin until May, giving legislators some more time to act.

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MALLOY’S PLAN

In the budget proposal he unveiled in February, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called for basing the formula on a community’s local property tax burden, student need and enrollment figures as a more accurate measurement of a community’s wealth.

“By considering a given communities’ ability to pay, we can adjust to what taxpayers can actually afford,” Malloy said during his budget address.

But his proposal has meant shifting funds from wealthier communities to needier ones _ a move that has met resistance. At a public hearing last week, Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra said her community may “look wealthy on paper,” but she contends it’s not.

“We are as diverse as our other neighbors and we are struggling mightily,” she said.

Llodra said her town faces a potential $3 million loss in overall education funding under Malloy’s budget proposal, which she predicted would lead to teacher cuts. She said “we cannot tax more,” adding how local taxpayers are “taxed out.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said the final language of whatever bill may or may not pass this session remains a work in progress. He advised members of the Education Committee on Wednesday to make sure the ultimate solution is “children- and student-focused.” Various groups are working behind the scenes on possible legislation.

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NOW OR LATER

Many at the state Capitol, however, disagree as to whether the formula needs to be revamped now.

James Finley, who represents the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Reform, said his organization wants the state to conduct a $250,000 to $300,000 yearlong analysis to collect “hard data” on the actual cost of educating Connecticut students. He said Malloy’s proposal would only “continue the mistakes of the past” by tweaking the formula to deliver a target amount of spending.

“However well-intentioned it may be, we want to get that data for the first time, find out what true student needs are across the state, fashion a formula to meet those needs and then figure out what kind of phase-in to get to that aspirational goal,” Finley said.

But Sen. Toni Boucher, the Republican Senate co-chairman of the Education Committee, said something must be done this session.

“There’s an economic imperative to have to do it right now. It’s all tied in all so greatly to the state budget. It’s part and parcel of the state budget,” she said, adding how Connecticut’s budget woes, not the court case, is driving the issue this session.

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