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Opinion: Lawmakers are jeopardizing school funding equity again

Katie Roy

Roughly a year and a half ago, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bipartisan state budget that contained a new Education Cost Sharing formula to distribute approximately $2 billion annually in state education funding to local public school districts.

The passage of a new ECS formula not only ended the years-long trend of allocating state education aid to local districts via block grants driven by political power and historical precedent, it ushered in a more equitable, logical, and transparent way of funding our state’s local public schools.

Currently in its first year of implementation, the new ECS formula specifically takes student learning and community needs into account, and includes three “need-student” weights that increase per-student state education aid for students with additional learning needs, such as those who are from low-income families as well as students who are classified as English Learners.

However, while the structure of the ECS formula is strong and should be maintained, an education funding formula is only as good as the data it uses. Unfortunately, the spending plan recently adopted by the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee ignores this principle and threatens the accuracy and integrity of the new formula by using an inaccurate count of low-income students and continuing to identify such students through an outdated and unreliable method.

Under the current ECS formula, students are identified as “low-income” if they qualify for the National School Lunch Program, commonly referred to as free or reduced price lunch or FRPL. While the spending plan adopted by the Appropriations Committee uses a count of FRPL-eligible students for the ECS formula, it uses a count that the commissioner and chief financial officer of the Connecticut State Department of Education have repeatedly said — in front of the committee — is inaccurate and has “data integrity” issues, which are currently being investigated by the department.

While this may seem like a minor and highly technically policy detail, an accurate count of low-income students matters not only to the integrity and efficacy of the ECS formula, it impacts how much state education aid is distributed to districts.

Under the new ECS formula, school districts receive an additional 30 percent of the ECS formula’s foundation amount ($11,525) for students who are identified as FRPL-eligible. The ECS formula also includes a concentrated poverty weight, which, for districts with 75 percent or more of their enrolled students identified as FRPL-eligible, increases the foundation amount an additional five percent (for a total of 35 percent) for each student above the 75-percent level.

Districts should receive additional funding for the low-income students they serve as research has shown students coming from low-income families tend to require additional resources and support to achieve at the same levels as their peers from higher-income families.

However, because the ECS formula, rightfully, takes into account the low-income populations of districts when determining state education aid, it is critically important that low-income student counts be accurate and trusted. If those counts are inaccurate, then Connecticut is once again not faithfully following the ECS formula and not distributing state education aid in the most honest and transparent way possible.

The inaccurate low-income student counts used in the Appropriations Committee’s spending plan stem from the Committee continuing to use an outdated and soon-to-be obsolete method of identifying students as eligible for FRPL.

Historically, students have been identified as eligible for FRPL by asking families to complete and return paper-based, non-verified household income surveys to school. However, researchers have warned this may have resulted in inaccurate low-income student counts and, instead, recommend low-income students be identified using multiple income verified measures. Additionally, the use of paper-based household income surveys is quickly being phased out across Connecticut as more districts take advantage of the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows all students to receive no-cost meals if their school or district qualifies and participates in the program.

In the biennial state budget proposal he presented to the General Assembly in February, Gov. Ned Lamont heeded the advice of researchers, and the State Department of Education, and called for a change in how low-income students are identified and counted for the ECS formula. Lamont proposed Connecticut move to a more accurate, more inclusive way of identifying low-income students called direct certification.

Direct certification is a method by which students can be deemed eligible for no-cost school meals through the NSLP, and allows students who are categorically deemed at-risk of hunger to qualify for no-cost meals without needing to complete an application for FRPL.

Using this new method, a student is directly certified by Connecticut’s Department of Social Services for FRPL when the student is enrolled in income verified social services programs that are available to low-income residents of the state, including SNAP (previously known as food stamps), TFA (also known as temporary cash assistance); state- or federally-funded Head Start programs; or children’s Medicaid (HUSKY). Students can also be directly certified if they are in foster care, homeless, or designated as a runaway child.

Additionally, it is important to note that changing how the state counts low-income students for purposes of calculating ECS grant amounts has no effect on how many students receive free or reduced price lunch meals through the NSLP. All students currently receiving free or reduced price meals will continue to receive them no matter what low-income student count is used for the ECS formula.

Furthermore, using direct certification would NOT reduce the number of students counted as low-income under the ECS formula. The State Department of Education has stated 182,319 students would be counted as low-income under the ECS formula for fiscal year 2020 using direct certification — an increase of 142 students over the current year low-income count.

While direct certification is not perfect (no method of identifying low-income students is) and may not capture every student needing additional resources, it is a far more accurate and more inclusive method to use for the ECS formula as it will better ensure state education dollars are going to the students and districts that need them.

Unfortunately, the Appropriations Committee rejected the governor’s call for a more accurate, more inclusive way of counting low-income students for the purposes of calculating ECS grants. Instead, the committee chose to knowingly use inaccurate low-income student data and continue an identification method that is outdated and obsolete.

For years, Connecticut did not faithfully abide by previous ECS formula iterations causing the state’s education aid to not be equitable or transparent. By knowingly using inaccurate low-income student data, the Appropriations Committee is continuing this regrettable history.

Our state cannot continue to make this same mistake again. We must finally faithfully and honestly follow the ECS formula, and that starts with using accurate student data and updating how we count low-income students to a more accurate, more inclusive method.

 

Katie Roy is the executive director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization based in New Haven that works to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school and state funding challenges that are fair to students, taxpayers, and communities.  This op-ed originally appeared on CTViewpoints.org.

9 comments

Sue Haynie May 13, 2019 at 7:27 pm

it would have been helpful if Ms Roy had given an actual example(s) of how the two different ways of counting FRL students could affect a district’s ECS formula. It needn’t have been a real district. In raw numbers and/or dollars, what does this mean? Who benefits when the appropriation committee uses an older way of accounting for FRL?

Piberman May 13, 2019 at 9:10 pm

Proponents of major adjustments to our ECF formulas might want to ask whether there is any conceivable amount of State funding that would narrow the performance gaps between wealthy and poor school districts to the point where most CT public school students would continue on to college learning the skills that good jobs require. We hear lots of discussion about testing outcomes. But not “real world outcomes”. In a world in which college is the “new high school” ought we not endeavor to encourage our youngsters to secure college degrees. Rather than high school graduation certificates which have limited value in our competitive market place.

It’s long been noted performance of the US public education system, despite its high salaries, ranks below middle tier against comparative nations. Why is that ? Could it be longer school days, weeks and school years. Could it be that many high performing nations take public education far more seriously in terms of outcomes than in the U.S. For example, outside the US securing a college degree means attending a public college whose tuition costs are typically quite modest. Moreover, students are encouraged to take subjects/skills suitable for the modern world of hi-tech. Relatively few foreign students study Ancient Greek and Roman history. But they do typically speak English to a high standard. Especially in China.

Achieving good results for public education is far more than about the “monies” or ECS. America has the most expensive public education system of any large modern nation. But it ranks well down the list in terms of performance. Here in Norwalk we spend 2/3rd of our City budget of public education. Yet reportedly less than 40% of high school students secure a 4 year college degree. We ought do much better.

Ron Morris May 14, 2019 at 12:14 am

Piberman
What you fail to mention is that Norwalk is a full 10 percent better than the state average of high school students that secure a 4 year college degree .

Piberman May 14, 2019 at 11:27 am

Ron Morris
Is the CT average our “reference point” ? When almost 1/3rd of CT’s residents live in major depressed cities with high poverty rates and very low college rates for either students or adults ? Our surrounding towns have nearly 100% college completion rates compared to 40% even though we match them on student funding. Danbury spends 30% less per capita than Norwalk on City services yet their school system performs not too differently.

School teachers/administrators always demand more. But never want to be held “accountable”. Or being asked why they avoid living in Norwalk. Schools ? Taxes ? All communities need to live within their means. Even Norwalk. No reason to make an exception for public schooling. When only 40% of our kids secure college degrees we ought demand our educators do much better. Our goal ought be to get our kids in college, not hand our high school graduation certificates. College is where the good jobs come from. Not high school certificates.

It’s an old story. Educators always demand more monies. Accountability is another issue. Best not go there. “Other factors are important”. And its not only education. FBI UCR show Norwalk has a higher incidence of violent crime than either Stamford or Danbury. Anyone concerned ? Don’t read much about police budgets, number of officers per capita, violent crime rates.

Of course for those who see State gov’t as an inexhaustible “bank” there’s no problem. Save overspending and over taxation have given us a stagnant decade long economy and major exodus from a failing State. Responsible gov’t is more than handing out the goodies.

Elsa Peterson Obuchowski May 14, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Thanks to Ms. Roy for explaining how the state counts low-income students for purposes of calculating ECS grant amounts. I for one found this article very informative.
As a member of the Connecticut Complete Count Committee for the 2020 Census, I’ll also take this opportunity to underscore the importance of counting every resident in the census — regardless of age, income level, citizenship status, or any other factors. Only with complete and accurate census data can communities receive their fair share of federal funding, legislative representation, and attention for planning of infrastructure and a host of other benefits.

Piberman May 14, 2019 at 4:27 pm

I’m always surprised local Legislators, officials and activists perennially seek out more State educational funding from our “Great Godfather” in Hartford. But they never show any interest in securing a 4 year college for Norwalk. Despite many public requests over the years. We’re the only CT City without a 4 year college.

Surely in a City where only 40% of the high school grads ever secure a college degree – the portal to good jobs – we’d do a whole lot better with an onsite local 4 year college. Especially one offering hi-tech computer offerings. Even though only 40% of City adults have college degrees they must understand the important end point of education is securing a college degree leading to good jobs. Not just a high school graduation certificate that offers few good jobs prospects.

Even in Bridgeport where only 18% of adults have college degrees a major effort was made decades ago to keep the Univ. Of Bridgeport alive. And it worked. What is it about Norwalk – its educators, elected officials, etc – that just remains indifferent to the crucial component of education. Namely a 4 year college in the City.

We need a champion for a 4 year college. Especially one with hi-tech offerings. All it takes for Mayor Rilling and Supt. Adamowski to “light the fire” and bring in Sen. Duff saying “lets do it”. Everyone knows CT’s economy was stagnant for an entire decade and its not getting a head of steam any time soon.
The real beneficiaries will be the kids. And Norwalk itself.

LadyDrivr May 15, 2019 at 2:00 pm

Piberman, I like your idea. What would it take to work? Could a campus be built Main Ave. (where BJ’s wanted to build) or would you recommend expanding NCC? I’m thinking somewhere on Glover Ave would be a great location too, with the Route 7 corporate corridor nearby to include Factset, Datto, and even ASML in Wilton. A pipe dream, but all within close proximity to the Merrit 7 Train.

Bryan Meek May 15, 2019 at 5:58 pm

Manresa Island. Uconn Maritime would compete with SUNY, which has the distinction of having graduates with incomes in the top 10 of all public colleges. Would be a great partnership with our new Maritime pathway at BMHS.

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