Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Education Funding at Heart of Lawsuit

State Aid to Towns Could be Issue in Governor's Race

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.

Source
Pazniokas, Mark and Robert A. Frahm. "State Sued Over School Funding." Hartford Courant 23 November, 2005.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Genghis- You're absolutely right and hit the nail on the head. How will the state pay for this when they can't even manage the $15 billion annually that they have now?

Also, if there's anyone who believes that throwing more money into the system will automatically improve things, I've got a bridge for sale that you should take a look at.

Anonymous said...

If you can't convince, just sue..more Yalie professors trying to tell the rest of us how to run our lives.

MikeCT said...

Some info on the CT Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, which organized the suit. The members of the coalition represent just about every educational group and profession in the state. The site includes a summary of their funding equity study (PDF) with town-by-town estimates on adequate funding. More funding only helps if it is invested well, but if we acknowledge that there are unjustifiable funding disparities that hurt kids and our economy, that the state is not contributing its fair share, that the property tax is regressive and contributes to a host of other problems, and that we can't afford future generations of inadequately educated children, then providing adequate state funding must be part of the solution.

CT can afford to do better, as this fact sheet (PDF) notes. CT ranks last among all states in state and local spending as a share of personal income. The state also ranks near the bottom of all states in its share of educational funding, and at the top in its reliance on local funding. State funding for K-12 education dropped from 46% in 1990 to 38% in 2004. This is not sustainable. (Latter stats from this report, which also points out that CT is lowest in the country in its overall state spending as a share of personal income.)

When it comes to the military, transportation, or business development, our culture recognizes that money is necessary. When it comes to kids, we have a blind spot.

Anonymous said...

You have to question the validity of a study that names Simsbury as the top performing school district, yet says that it is underfunded by a third. Those seems to be two vastly different conclusions.

Perhaps it isn't about performance, but just another grab for more money? Simply throwingg money at a problem isn't a solution.

Gabe said...

Genghis - couple of issues to squabble over (disclosure: my wife is a teacher) -

1. 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.

Yes, income taxes would have to replace property taxes in almost any scheme that both improves educational spending and the burden of property taxes. I am comfortable with that for a number of reasons:

- Smaller cities, like Hamden where I live, are getting crushed. Many people live in apartments (Mix Ave. if you are familiar with the area) and are not contributing property taxes. At the same time there are gaps between what the school board asks for and what they get from the city (last year it was in the neighborhood of $2mil). How to make up the gap? My property taxes have doubled since I bought. I can live with that though because the alternative is unthinkable - I sat at a school board meeting (to see if my wife would be laid off for the fourth consecutive year) where they discussed how to close the gap and pay the salary of the NCLB mandated data cruncher and came up with the following proposals: End the teaching of lab science in the high school (you read that correctly), end music and art instruction, close an elementary school (that one passed), end all-day kindegarten, and lay off 20+ teachers (this one passed as well). {Aside: Anon 12:04 - cute comment about the bridge. Our schools don't have enough money to function properly. Please stick you bridge in whatever bodily orafice you find convenient. Snark is not going to solve this problem.}

- CT has a flat 5% income tax. I think we could live with a legitimate millionaire's tax that raises that % to, say, 7% for people whose income is over $1mil per year. {To the reading public: Before you flame that idea keep in mind that we are talking about the richest less than 1% that make that much and it was Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, that first suggested the progressive income tax}

2.The legislature needs to act before this beast gets through the court system and forces their hand.

I agree, but one of the reasons that this "beast" is making its way through the courts is because the legislature has failed to act for the last 30 years or so. Its not like the twin related issues of education and the state's reliance on property taxes suddenly cropped up in mid-April. The legislature could have acted on this at any time. If the lawsuit forces them to act makes the suit moot, I say that is a great outcome and the lawsuit accomplished its goal.

3. This is just a feeling on my part, so please correct me if I am wrong and accept my apologies (I love the blog and am a frequent reader), but it seems to me that you don't think this problem is as serious as it is.

In many of CT's cities, you mention Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven, and I agree but would add CT's smaller cities (like Hamden) as just as dire, we are half-assing the education of our children. Combined with alot of the other problems that CT has (I'm thinking specifically of 50th in job growth and the infrastructure (read: Traffic) problems), this makes CT a less desirible place to live. For example, and on a microscopic level, I love Hamden, my wife grew up here, but they could potentially cut lab science out of the high school! I'm moving before my kids get to school age. Unless we do something to fix this problem. I can't imagine I'm the only young parent who feels this way.

Finally, and take this with a huge grain of salt - my wife is a teacher, we arent paying teachers enough. Within three years of college I got paid more than my Dad, a 30 Year vetern of the NY schools, did when he retired. My dream job is, quite frankly, teaching but we can't raise a fmily on two teachers' salary's anymore.

And we aren't attracting the best and the brightest unless they are from teaching familys or have an overriding desire to serve the public interest at the expense of buying things. Some stats from the DOE, culled from this article (which is worth a read)

-The average new teacher makes just under $30,000 (in CT its a little higher, but not much)
-1 in 5 new teachers leaves after the first year
-Almost 2 in 5 leave in the first three

Eventually something will have to give...

Anonymous said...

Also, Mike CT, nowhere do you mention results. Will another $2 billion result in better-educated kids? And will the money be mostly eaten up by salaries, benefits and mandates, resulting in less of this new money actually being used in the classroom?

Anyone can make the numbers work to their advantage. Let's look before we leap.

Anonymous said...

Gabe

The last time a "millionaire's tax" was proposed it was a total flop. You know why? Because it would only have generated a little less than $200 million in new revenue for the state. Thats 10% of what the CCJEF wants in new state education spending. So where's the rest of the money going to come from? Will you be willing to accept a 10 or 12% income tax in Connecticut? Of course not, because you wouldn't be able to live here.

This is not the answer. Its easy and popular to say a millionaire's tax is warranted, but the numbers just do not support it.

Anonymous said...

Gabe, CT's teachers already are the highest paid in America

Most people don't get the summer off, either

If school funding lawsuits worked why then does NJ now have the nation's highest property taxes and income taxes higher than ours?

Genghis Conn said...

Gabe,

I was a high school teacher for three years before giving in to burnout and changing careers in 2004. I agree: teachers are underpaid and overworked. The best and the brightest are choosing other careers. We need more and better paid teachers, smaller classes and smaller schools.

The lack of funding is a serious problem. When I was teaching, I watched state aid dry up while mandated testing increased. It was awful. Larger towns with a shrinking property tax base suffer terribly.

But I'm still not convinced that a lawsuit is the right way to go. I'd rather see the legislature do this on its own. Whenever the legislature is forced to do something by the courts, it does a terrible, slapdash job out of pure spite. Sheff v. O'Neill is a good example. We need innovation, here. The courts can't order that.

We also shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking our property taxes will go down. They won't until our tax system is given a massive overhaul, or we shift services to regions instead of towns.

Gabe said...

Genghis - I believe we agree with each other and are just disagreeing about tactics. Everyone who believes in a representative democracy would rather see the legislature fix this. Unfortunetely, they have a thirty year record of not fixing it. If the lawsuit forces them to get off their duff and do something, great. If not and the court has to step in and fix it, I'm okay with that too. That being said, without the pressure of a lawsuit, the legislature has proved that, short of mass rallies on the capitol steps, they have no interest in addressing the issue.

Anon #1 1:12PM - The property taxes are forcing many young families, mine included, to take a hard look at whether we can afford to leave here now. My property taxes have doubled in 5 years and there is no end insight to the Board of Ed's funding problem. Especially since the places we can afford to live have the short end of the services (schools, etc.) stick in the state. Agreeing with Genghis above, the problem has to be solved through a complete reforming of the CT tax structure (not just a small millionaire's tax - a full progressive taxation system) - that will include higher income taxes to offset property taxes - a trade off I'm willing to make if it means that my kid's schools don't suck.

Anon #2 1:20 - Agreed, CT's teachers are among the highest paid in the nation. They also live in one of the most expensive states in the nation. The statisitc that they have higher pay than in, say, Mississipi, doesn't mean much without a comparison of the relative costs of living. I'm not even sure that someone has done such a study, but without it, saying that CT's teachers have higher pay than somewhere elsein the nation is disengenous at best. Also, show me a teacher that doesn't have a summer job to make ends meet and I will show you a teacher who didn't need to work in the first place. Finally, I have no idea why NJ is in the particular situation that it is in. I do know that CT has a fairly small income tax, a huge property tax burden, and a growing problem with school funding. In Sweden they have an enourmas income tax and education is paid for from birth through college, but that has as much relevance to CT as NJ does.

One last point that I should have included in my earlier post (Genghis, as a former teacher, I'm sure you can second this): The state of funding is taking a toll on teacher's pocketbooks. We spend in the neighborhood of $1,000 a year just on supplies for my wife's classroom (she teaches first grade). The situation in Hamden got so bad that teachers had to supply the tissues for their students. When you have 20something first graders, it adds up to alot of tissues in ten months. Long story short - the superintendent was touring my wife's school, sneezed, and asked the principal for a tissue. The principal politely informed her that they hadn't had supplies delivered since the beginning of the year (it was April) and that if she wanted a tissue, she could ask one of the teachers who bought them. Sadly, there is no happy ending here - 8 months or so later and we are still buying alot of the supplies they need to, you know, teach our young. As a state, we should be ashamed.

Anonymous said...

"Finally, I have no idea why NJ is in the particular situation that it is in."

I do.

They did things the way the plaintiffs want things done.

High property taxes AND high income taxes.

Florio=DeStefano

Gabe said...

For the record, the plaintiffs in the suit, of course, are not advocating a particular way of raising money to decrease the disparity of funding between the cities and the wealthier towns. It would be absurd if they did. They are only attacking the fact of the disparity. Even if they were successful in court, the court would not tell the state how to raise the money, only what would need to be spent where. It is up to the legislature to determine how the money is raised.

As such, its rather a different issue than the lawsuit. One way or another, lawsuit or no, CT will have to raise the money to fix the educational system.

What is your solution?

Anonymous said...

Gabe

I have an idea! How about if the legislature and the CEA stop trying to micromanage local education through all of these unfunded state mandates and instead let local school boards make their own decisions? I am sure the CEA would hate this plan but it could save millions annually per school district.

Gabe said...

I'm not sure to exactly what you are referring, but...

By unfunded mandates, I'm sure you are including the NCLB legislation that requires every town in CT to hire a data cruncher, right?

Your point would mean more if we weren't talking about cutting lab science, closing schools, and chopping teachers wholesale. We are passed the point where unfunded mandates from the state are a major part of the problem. There isn't enough money to buy tissues.

DeanFan84 said...

Anybody familiar with ACT 60 in Vermont. My understanding is that they did a pretty good job of creating tax fairness, such that a $300,000 house in a poor town would have the same education-spending burden as a $300,00 house in an affluent town.

We all know that things are out of whack in CT. The tax bill on a $300,000 home in CT could vary anywhere between $2,500-$5,000.

This isn't because one town is spending much more per student than another. It's because some towns have a heck of a tax base, and others don't. Rural towns like Durham and Middlefield get screwed, as do towns like Hamden or Branford that have a lot of rental property.

Finally, does anyone have info about the range of teacher salaries in New Haven. My understanding is that tenured teachers make more than twice what rookies do, for essentially the same job.

Gabe said...

DeanFan84 -

Click here, and then click on the link to download a Word doc with the salary schedule.

DeanFan84 said...

Gabe--

Thanks. I was wrong. 15yr plus tenured teachers make 80% more than rookies.

Eddie said...

About New Jersey: from the outside, it may look like One Big Newark, but it has 587 municipalities, give or take a few. Regionalization is more pronounced than it is here -- county governments are quite strong -- but there is still a lot of duplication of services.

New Jersey is also, like Connecticut, short of affordable places to live, has a "brain drain" of younger people, and is one of the country's "donor" states (high tax payments to DC with little return).

Anonymous said...

Act 60 in Vermont worked because the burden falls primarily on out of state residents ("flatlanders")who own property but don't vote. Vt residents don't pay the full tax due to income tax credits and other exemptions. Businesses such as ski areas also took a hit. but like other locals, have managed to mitigate the impact somewhat through some exemptions and raising ticket prices on non-residents. The political make up is far different than Ct where there is not the bank of high valued property in the hands of non-residents.

Anonymous said...

Gabe , if the ECS formula shorts Hamden, perhaps the Democrats who represent the town ought to do something about it. Oops, Martin Looney and Cam Staples think they only represent New Haven. Sorry

Anonymous said...

Gabe

I'll give you your due on teacher salaries. Maybe you would consider a type of privately-financed, merit based pay system for teachers that does not compete teachers against each other, but rather rewards them for their success in improving the test scores of their students. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story on this not long ago.

Anonymous said...

While I realize this forum thread is long since stale I find myself compelled to write.

Sure why not do merit based pay...


Perhaps we should look at Texas under Gov. Bush at the time and see how teaching to the test has helped the situation. You will find many instances of fraud by teachers worried about losing their jobs due to low test scores.

Maybe we could all for a moment try to imagine it is midnight, and as children we are tucked into bed. Suddenly, shots ring out in the air. Now I am afraid for my life and can't get back to sleep. Tomorrow at school I am very tired, maybe I fall asleep at my desk because school is one of the only safe places to be. Meanwhile, I am missing key points in the lesson.

Now imagine that about half of my classmates live in the same urban neighborhood and have the same problem.

Is it then fair to fire a teacher because her class is only half listening to what she is teaching?

And yes, I said fired, because that is what a merit system will entail. Not to mention school politics as to who gets the "good" group of kids.

Socioeconomics plays a big role in test scores.

If we are going to discuss merit pay, perhaps we should also look into hazard pay. Police officers get more pay because they are often in danger.

Both of my parents have worked in an urban Connecticut city for their entire careers. I currently work in an urban school system as well. About 10 years ago, father was SHOT AT. He is ok, but that is not in his job description.

My mother often bought not only tissues, but clothes, and winter jackets for the kids who had none.

I was one signature away from having an adopted sister as a kid because my parents wanted to adopt a student who was severely ABUSED at home.

Now, when you work in an office all day, how would it feel if you were given pay depending on where you lived, if your mom is a crack addict, if you can't perform well on a test because you are tired from gun shots at night or malnutrition.