Message from Connecticut: do not expect real funding reform

The pro-charter organization Conn-Can is expanding nationwide as 50-CAN, including into NY State where it is pushing the Parent Trigger. Wendy Lecker is a public school parent, former president of the Stamford Parent Teacher Council, and was staff attorney at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, plaintiffs in a school funding lawsuit in New York. She writes below about need for real funding reform and the countervailing influence of Conn-CAN.  This column is cross posted at the Stamford Advocate.

On January 5, Governor Malloy convened a full day of “multi-stakeholder” workshops in New Britain to discuss his “bold” education agenda. The school funding workshop left little hope that the governor plans any real school finance reform. For Stamford residents, this is especially disappointing.

Stamford residents feel the brunt of the flaws in our state funding formula, called the Education Cost Sharing Formula, or ECS. While nationwide, states on average pay 50 percent of a municipality’s local education budget, the state of Connecticut contributes a mere 7 percent of Stamford’s.

Stamford is part of a statewide coalition, called the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), which filed a lawsuit in 2005 claiming that ECS’s flaws violate the state’s constitutional guarantee to provide all children with an adequate public education.

In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit to proceed, setting forth what the state must provide: educational resources that give every child the opportunity to participate in our democratic institutions, obtain gainful employment, contribute to our economy and go on to higher education.

At this point, our state government could have attempted real education finance reform, recognizing that plaintiffs prevailed in around 70 percent of these cases that have been brought nationally.

Sadly, the state instead chose to essentially cede the school funding discussion to a charter school lobby, ConnCAN. ConnCAN has relentlessly pushed a funding scheme called “money follows the child,” which funnels public state and local dollars from public schools to privately run charter schools, which educate only 8 percent of the state’s public school students.

Two years ago, the state Department of Education (DOE) determined that this scheme would have had a devastating effect on local school districts. If enacted, Stamford would have immediately lost 51 percent of its ECS allocation to fund just 200 charter school students. The DOE also found that these privately run charter schools already spend more on average per student than their host districts. ConnCAN’s attempt was defeated.

Undeterred, ConnCAN again pushed “money follows the child” to the state Board of Education in February 2011. This move was opposed by many across the state and was defeated.

But ConnCAN, armed with funds from corporations like Purdue Pharma, did not give up. It drafted legislation incorporating money follows the child, which was introduced in the 2011 session. Again, many sectors opposed it. Secretary Benjamin Barnes of the state Office of Policy and Management wrote in opposition, noting that the bill, developed with input from no one except ConnCAN, would create “138 losers and 50 winners” and poorer districts would see “significant losses.”

Which brings us to last week’s workshop convened by Governor Malloy who, as Stamford’s mayor, was one of the original members of the CCJEF coalition. We had high hopes for a governor who understands how ECS hurts our city. We hoped the governor would learn from states like Maryland and Pennsylvania, which achieved comprehensive school funding reform, without a court order, by carefully identifying the components of an adequate education, then assessing the cost of those components. Perhaps he would invite school finance experts from around the country and educational experts from Connecticut public schools to discuss these components and their potential cost.

Unfortunately, the speakers at the workshop were asked to discuss mechanisms for funding charter schools and competitive grants; even though charters serve only a tiny fraction of students in this state and competitive grants would constitute only a small portion of state funding.

The message was clear: Do not expect any real reform for the 92 percent of children who attend our public schools, and expect privately run charter schools to take center stage in any funding discussion.

Perhaps the governor believes the charter school supporters’ line. They say charters are public schools too, so shouldn’t they be part of the same funding formula? No. All charter schools in Connecticut are run by private entities. Unlike public schools, charters need not accept every child, and many in Connecticut systematically exclude English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Charters need not serve every grade level, and they do not. Charters need not achieve demographic balance, and charters increase school segregation. Charters receive a great deal of private money and spend more per student than public schools do.

Moreover, despite anecdotes put forth by charters, solid research shows that charter schools do no better at educating our children than traditional public schools.

Perhaps the governor does not want to spend any more money on our schools because the economy is not good. As I was sitting in this workshop, I received an email that the Washington State Supreme Court just ruled that the state violated its constitutional duty to adequately fund its schools. And several weeks ago a court in Colorado reached the same decision about Colorado’s schools, to the tune of billions of dollars. In this bad economy.

The governor and legislature have a choice. They can continue to tinker around the edges of finance reform, and threaten privatization of our public schools. Or they can stay one step ahead of a court decision that will surely find that they are depriving our children of their fundamental right to education. My hope is that they see the light sooner rather than later. As the lead attorney in the Colorado case noted, justice delayed is education denied.

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