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Court decision will force hard look at how much underperforming districts spend on education

The Connecticut State Supreme Court ruled last week that Connecticut’s school funding formula did not violate the state’s constitutional mandate that every child be provided a “minimally adequate” education.

But “minimally adequate” might not be enough for some parents and students.

The court decision was the result of a 2016 ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher in a lawsuit brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. CCJEF claimed that Connecticut was not offering enough support to failing schools through its Education Cost Sharing grants.

Moukasher agreed with CCJEF, labeling Connecticut’s education funding system “irrational,” and gave the state 180 days in order to develop a new, more equitable funding formula.

However, the State Supreme Court disagreed and noted that it was not the court’s place to make legislative policy regarding education funding.

Connecticut is widely known for having good schools, but there is a deep disparity between schools in largely affluent suburban towns and those in some of the state’s most beleaguered cities like Hartford and Bridgeport.

Unpacking the numbers on which school district spends how much per pupil — and what it means — can be difficult.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim lamented the State Supreme Court decision, noting that Bridgeport only receives $14,000 per student in education funding, while other more affluent communities receive “nearly double.”

Ganim’s numbers appear to be based on the Connecticut State Department of Education’s listing of school spending. According to the SDE, Bridgeport, with the second highest student population in the state, spent $298 million on education, amounting to $14,164 per student, on education.

Just down the highway, the wealthy suburb of Westport with a student population half the size of Bridgeport’s, spent nearly $20,387 per student.

However, those figures include local spending as well. When broken down by what the two different municipalities receive from the state, the numbers are much different.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Bridgeport spends a total of $18,382 per student, with $13,517 coming from the state and $3,188 coming from the city itself. The remaining amount comes from the federal government.

Westport, on the other hand, spends $23,035 per student, with only $3,141 coming from the state and $19,149 coming from the town.

Westport doesn’t receive more in state education funds, but rather spends more of its own revenue.

Hartford, which spends more on education costs than any other Connecticut municipality, spends a total of $22,472 per student, according to the NCES data, but still has a number of failing schools. Of that figure, the state of Connecticut pays $16,917.

The cost of Bridgeport’s school system has been rising rapidly as well. According to the Bridgeport Board of Education’s 2018 budget summary, the school district’s budget has grown from $215 million in 2012 to $245 million this year.

Contractual wage increases for teachers and administrators, coupled with increased costs for benefits, puts additional strain on Bridgeport to financially meet the needs of its students. Salaries for employees will grow by $3 million due to collective bargaining agreements with the city’s unions and benefit costs will grow by another $1.8 million in 2018.

Benefits, including insurance for both current and retired employees, will total $52 million for the year, according to the board of education’s budget.

The city’s funding of its school system has remained flat and, despite requesting an additional $15 million from the state this year, Bridgeport won’t receive any increase in state education funds due to the state’s continuing budget problems.

But Bridgeport’s failing school systems may actually be adding to the city’s economic woes.

According to Dr. Bartley Danielsen, a professor of finance and real estate at North Carolina State University, Bridgeport has the highest rate of “family flight” in the nation. As couples begin to have children, those than can afford to move out of Bridgeport relocate to a nearby town with better schools.

This results in a loss for Bridgeport, as those couples not only take their tax revenue with them, but also their spending money. Businesses which cater to the middle class then follow, leaving Bridgeport with a large population who can’t afford to move, and who have less businesses in the area to provide jobs, services and economic growth.

Danielsen believes offering access to charter schools could be the key to making a difference in places like Bridgeport, by allowing middle-income families to be assured their child could attend a good school.

Bridgeport is home to Bridgeport Achievement First charter school. Achievement First receives less funding from the state and spends far less per student than Bridgeport’s public schools, yet outperforms other schools in the district.

According to NCES, Bridgeport Achievement First receives $10,527 per student from the state and spends a total $11,281 per student.

Achievement First in Hartford, has nearly the exact same costs per pupil. But charter schools are relatively few and far between, at this point.

Hartford, in response to a State Supreme Court ruling, created an extensive magnet school system to allow students the opportunity to get out of its failing public school system. However, due to racial quotas, many Hartford students are still stuck in the public school system, while seats are left empty in the magnet schools.

But offering parents a choice and a chance to get their children a better education may actually save a significant amount of money for cities like Bridgeport.

A recent study authored by Dr. Lewis Andrews and Dr. Martin Lueken examined potential the effects of education savings accounts in Connecticut. ESA’s allow parents to use a portion of the money the state spends per student in order to find a better education alternative for their child. ESA’s have been successfully implemented in states like Arizona and Florida.

The study found that 2 percent of Connecticut’s students using a modest ESA of $5,000, would achieve cost savings of $77 million per year, with $55 million of that being saved by the districts. According to the study, Bridgeport could save up to $7.8 million per year.

The potential savings increase if more students utilize the program. The ESA’s allow parents to have a choice in where their child is educated but also increases the amount of per pupil funding for the school district.

Co-author of the study, Lewis Andrews, calls ESAs a “terrific solution that would not only provide a better education for kids in the city but also save money.”

“There are very few leaders in the state who would want their own kids to go to these schools,” Andrews said.

He points out that ESAs can be used by children with learning disabilities to attend schools that would better suit their needs while also lowering the special education costs of a school district like Bridgeport.

With the recent court decision, districts that were hoping for a court-enforced increase in state funds will have to find ways to curb costs in the future, while still meeting the educational needs of its students.

The ESA study addresses the CCJEF case, noting that ESAs offer an “elegant policy solution” to the problems posed by Connecticut’s education funding system, giving parents a quick and efficient alternative if a school system is not meeting their child’s needs.

Faced with rising education costs and no end in sight for the state’s fiscal crisis, cities like Bridgeport — and the state legislature — may soon have to find new solutions for problems that have been decades in the making.

“There is a way out,” Andrews said. “And its cost effective.”

Marc E. Fitch

Marc E. Fitch is the author of several books and novels including Shmexperts: How Power Politics and Ideology are Disguised as Science and Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot. Marc was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and his work has appeared in The Federalist, American Thinker, The Skeptical Inquirer, World Net Daily and Real Clear Policy. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University. Marc can be reached at [email protected]

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