According to a recent report released by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), Connecticut is underfunding the Education Cost-Sharing (ECS) grant, which represents the largest source of state aid to public education, by more than $763 million. In its report, CCM offers recommendations for reforming the state’s school finance system to lessen the burden on local property taxes and ensure the state follows a long-standing court order regarding equity in school funding.
The report claims that the state is not currently complying with the 35-year old decision of the Connecticut Supreme court in Horton v. Meskill (1977). There, the court held that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional because it did not mitigate the disparities in local property wealth. According to CCM, in 2013, local governments will provide 51.4% of local education expenditures, and the state’s share will be just 42.9%, with the federal government providing the rest. The authors of the report hope to convince legislators to move towards a 50-50 funding partnership, and thus lessen the inequity caused by the reliance on property taxes.
In a pretrial ruling in 2010, CCJEF v. Rell, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the state constitution guarantees all students not only equity in school funding, but also an adequate education. A trial to determine whether public school students are currently being denied effective and meaningful educational opportunities will take place in 2014.
In addition to pushing the state to take on a larger share of public school expenditures, the CCM report addresses a number of other problems with the current system. Although funding for ECS did increase this year by $50 million (after level funding for the previous three years), the majority of this money was distributed through categorical grants rather than through formula allocations in which all districts would share. The authors assert that making the aid conditional rather than automatic “flies in the face of all equalization principles.” Some of their other concerns include unfunded state mandates that drive up costs, the high costs of special education that increasingly fall on local districts, and the fact that foundation aid levels are not based on adequacy studies, and thus do not reflect the actual costs of providing an adequate education.
CCM announced its findings before a state task force charged with reviewing the effectiveness of ECS — the 9th such task force since 1977. Despite the current economic climate, CCM urged the twelve members to recommend increases in education funds to the governor and the legislator: “The education needs of Connecticut’s school children don’t disappear because of a bad economy. The choice is whether to provide adequate state resources or to surrender the futures of today’s school-age children.” Executive Director of CCM James Finley argues that the state is neglecting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education, but the head of the task force insists in response that there is no legal obligation to fund the grant program at a particular level. The task force has indicated that their recommendations could be ready by the end of November.