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Photo Credit: Michelle Mcloughlin for The Wall Street Journal

September 12, 2016

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A Superior Court judge in Connecticut issued a blockbuster ruling last Wednesday in the long-running case Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell. The judge found that the state’s school funding system is so arbitrary—so divorced from student needs and from any real conception of the goals of education—that it’s unconstitutional. This is an important ruling, and it has the potential to spur real change. But arbitrary education funding isn’t just a Connecticut problem. It’s an American problem, and we need to think about a broader solution.
(Related: Connecticut’s critical deadline — only 6 months to revamp education system)
In his sweeping indictment of the state’s education system, Judge Thomas Moukawsher wrote that Connecticut’s school funding system does not “deploy in its schools resources and standards that are rationally, substantially, and verifiably connected to teaching children”—a distressingly low bar, and the state fails to clear it. Instead, “the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools.”
How did this situation come about? In Connecticut, a key factor is the legislature’s abandonment of the school funding formula. The state’s formula, which was last significantly revised in 2007, is intended to mitigate inequities, at least in part. It’s designed to send more state aid to low-wealth districts and to provide extra funding for the education of low-income students (though it largely neglects the resource needs of other high-need populations, including English-language learners and students with disabilities). But the legislature has been ignoring the formula for the past several years, and it has recently taken to funding districts not by calculating how much they require but by issuing block grants that bear no consistent relationship to student need.
The total sum was far from enough to fully cover the cost of schooling in the state, so local districts were left to make up the difference, with predictable results. In 2016, wealthy school districts like Greenwich and Darien were able to raise enough money by paying property tax rates below 2%. Meanwhile, high-poverty districts, with their higher-need student populations and poorer tax base, had to pay much higher taxes to get by—in the case of Waterbury, four times as high.
This kind of inequitable funding is a problem in many states. For instance, high-poverty districts in Louisiana, whose students would benefit the most from additional resources, get nearly 20 percent less funding per pupil than low-poverty districts. And Louisiana is only the worst offender — in a majority of states, the neediest districts get less than the most affluent. Moreover, cuts to state aid, like the one occasioned by Connecticut’s recent budget troubles, harm low-income communities the most. That’s because when state funding falls short, they are the least able to pick up the slack with increased local tax dollars.
Stepping back from state policy, the problem described by the judge in this case—the lack of a clear definition of educational quality and an inability to align funding to achieve it—is also present on a national scale. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held in San Antonio v. Rodriguez that education is not a federal constitutional right. Ever since, American students have been subject to 51 different state notions of educational opportunity, with capricious and illogical results. Take the Columbus City School District in Ohio and the Nashville–Davidson County School District in Tennessee, which are alike in many ways—they’re both large districts with similarly high rates of low-income students and English-language learners. But, once figures are adjusted for local differences in cost of living, Columbus has over 60 percent more funding per pupil than Nashville does.
The lack of a countrywide consensus about what constitutes an adequate education has left us with a deeply inequitable national school funding map.
San Antonio v. Rodriguez left education to the states. In this latest case, Connecticut tried to pass the buck down to school districts, saying that the principle of local control justified the vast funding inequities between different districts (and this kind of defense has arisen in school funding cases in other states with vast wealth inequality, like New Jersey and New York). But as Judge Moukawsher underlined in his ruling, the responsibility for schooling under the Connecticut constitution (as under nearly every state’s constitution) lies with the state, not the districts. Local control is no excuse for radical disparities in funding.
(The 74 investigates: Connecticut’s Shame — in one of America’s Richest Counties, a High School Has Been Failing for 50 Years)
Connecticut is one of the richest states in the nation, but thousands of students live in school districts — New Haven, Hartford, New London, New Britain — where child poverty rates are upwards of 30 percent. The state’s irrational funding system has devastating consequences for real students. And arbitrary funding can undermine equity anywhere in the nation: in Connecticut, but all the more so in states where there is barely enough money to go around. This ruling is a call to arms not only for Connecticut, but for us all.
Zahava Stadler is the Manager of Policy and Research at EdBuild.