Back in the early 1970s, the landmark case of Horton v. Meskill changed the way that school systems get their money. The disparity between rich and poor districts was so great that it had become necessary for the state to step in to level the playing field. This was the beginning of state aid to districts.
Thirty years later, state aid to towns is at the center of another lawsuit, one that could have consequences for the gubernatorial race next year.
A school-funding lawsuit filed Tuesday aims to increase state aid to municipalities by as much as $2 billion annually, creating an instant issue for the 2006 campaign for governor.
The lawsuit claims there are vast disparities in opportunities and levels of achievement among Connecticut's public schools.
The long-anticipated legal action is based on the widespread belief that the General Assembly lacks the will to tackle a major spending increase without the threat of court intervention.
The two Democratic mayors running for governor, John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven and Dannel P. Malloy of Stamford, are among the sponsors of the litigation, which names Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell as a defendant. (Pazniokas)
Okay. State aid has been decreasing for years. There are huge, huge disparities between districts like Bridgeport and Fairfield, or Bloomfield and next-door Simsbury.
I'm still not convinced that this lawsuit is a good idea.
Firstly, how are we going to pay for the huge increase it demands? The theory seems to be that more state aid would allow property taxes to dwindle; how likely is that? Income taxes will almost certainly go up. Other programs will suffer.
Secondly, there is absolutely no guarantee that more money will equal better schools. If I knew for certain that the money would be spent in the best possible way and that students would be learning more because of it, I'd be all for it. Instead, this lawsuit seems to want the state to simply throw more money at the towns, many of which will not spend it wisely. Districts like Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven lead the state in per-pupil spending.
The legislature needs to act before this beast gets through the court system and forces their hand. Yes, school districts do need more money, but the state needs to make sure they're spending the money on the right things. New state money for education should go to the following:
- Reducing class sizes: This should be the first order of business. Study after study shows that smaller class sizes mean more individual attention for students. How do you manage this? More teachers!
- Smaller schools: If a high school has more than 500-600 students--subdivide it. Make it smaller. You can do it in the same building--there's no need for new construction. Kids get lost in huge schools. Smaller schools mean, once again, more individual attention. This is necessary, and it's why magnet and charter schools are so successful.
- New Materials: Self-explanatory.
- Environmental Improvements: Better air circulation. Less mold. Brighter hallways. Well-kept classrooms. It matters.
This shouldn't be done in a haphazard way, but as part of a focused, innovative and concrete state plan. Cutoffs for pupils per classroom should be set. School sizes should be capped. Once materials reach a certain age, they should be replaced.
The legislature owes it to Connecticut's children to do this right, before control of the situation is taken out of their hands. It may already be too late.
Pazniokas, Mark and Robert A. Frahm. "State Sued Over School Funding." Hartford Courant 23 November, 2005.