‘Unfair’ Connecticut education formula to be challenged this fall

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk gets fewer educational funding dollars from the state than it got in 1975 when you adjust for inflation, according to a woman who has been fighting for 10 years to change the system.

That might change next spring, according to Dianne Kaplan deVries, project director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF). DeVries spoke with passion and confidence Tuesday to the Norwalk Board of Education about the 10-year CCJEF lawsuit against the state, set to go to trial in September, predicting that the preponderance of evidence will mean success and real change in Connecticut.

Winning won’t just mean a moral victory, she said. Experts working with CCJEF have proposals ready to provide legislators to right the system, should the judge rule in CCJEF’s favor, she said.

“It is important that those remedies be right or we will have frittered away the last 16½ years as far as I am concerned,” she said.

CCJEF vs. Rell was filed in 2005, when Jodi Rell was governor, having stepped up from lieutenant governor when Gov. John Rowland resigned in a corruption scandal. The complaint alleges inequality of educational opportunities and resultant harm to students because of the state’s educational funding system. The battle was waged until 2012 strictly by Yale University law students, whose volunteer contributions have made the “most important lawsuit in the history of Connecticut education” possible, she said.

“If our lawyer had been billing, we would be around $20 million in the hole …  and we are by no means done yet,” she said.

In 2012, CCJEF appealed to Yale Alumni for help. As a result, Debevoise and Plimpton LLP is now lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Norwalk is a plaintiff in the case. Former Mayor Alex Knopp signed Norwalk on and former Mayor Richard Moccia continued the city’s involvement. In March, Mayor Harry Rilling was named the to coalition’s steering committee.

Norwalk politicians frequently site the Connecticut Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula as being unfair. Last year, Gov. Dannel Malloy revamped the formula, only to see the factors that would have sent more money to Norwalk die in a legislative committee. DeVries said that since then, there has been a change that shows how unfair things are.

“Guess what happened this winter, in the 2014 legislative session? They completely abandoned that one-year formula,” deVries said. “Who creates a state aid formula and one year later disbands it and does whatever they want to? To this moment we still have no explanation about why so many towns got above that formula. Was it the squeaky wheels that got the money? Or was it throw a few pages down the stairs and whoever landed at the bottom got the extra money? Was it vote trading that got the money? That’s an absolute no-no.”

Norwalk schools are underfunded by at least $21.3 million a year, she said.

“This is the most conservative bottom number that it would be reasonable to think you ought to be having, and your children ought to be enjoying,” she said.

That’s according to an education adequacy cost study commissioned by CCJEF in 2004. It does not factor in the many state mandates since then, including Common Core State Standard, teacher evaluations and testing that requires technology, she said.

“What does it mean to have a free education if that education is lousy? And the standard by which you judge lousy or good continues to change as the world evolves,” she said. “(This trial) is our great legacy, our great contribution to the next 50 years or so of Connecticut education.”

Connecticut – ironically led by Gov. Dannel Malloy, who was a big supporter of the lawsuit when he was Stamford’s mayor – is “throwing the kitchen sink” at the lawsuit, including trying to argue that preschool education be excluded from the case, deVries said. While that motion hasn’t been dropped, it’s not likely to be heard because the state couldn’t find any experts to say that pre-K is not important, she said.

The trial is likely to take two or three months, thanks to a “determined” judge who is demanding that lawyers be in court four or five days a week, she said. The judge then has 120 days to make a decision, but an extension is likely, she said.

It will be broadcast on CT-N, she said. CCJEF will be blogging through the trial.

“The legislators will have heard the whole thing on CT-N and they will know the preponderance of the evidence is clearly on our side. Based on other states, the legislators don’t wait for the decision, they know what it’s going to be,” she said, predicting action.

“We have challenged the entire school funding system,” she said. “So we have got to go after all the categoricals, we have got to straighten out the way that those magnet schools are being funded — the vo-ag programs, which are so essential to so many kids and have lots of empty seats because the state hasn’t been funding them enough. I mean, this is an outrage. The charter schools, we don’t want them taking money out of the municipally based public schools so we’ve got to find a funding source for them. Or stick it to the state. Let them continue funding them. They want to found them, then let them pay for them. The technical high school system – that system has been underfunded for years. I mean, they have been trying to catch up in the last couple of years, but it’s a very little and very late to be trying to do that.”

DeVries said plaintiffs don’t have the responsibility to come up with proposals to resolve inequities, but it was decided early on that CCJEF would take a different approach.

“Why don’t we, with our experts elsewhere outside the state, get those proposals on the table and explain them, and then work with (legislators) a little bit as they tweak them and make them to be their own? But this notion that lay people can devise complex systems such as this is lunacy,” she said. “That’s why school finance is in such bad shape across the nation. You can’t politically appoint a group and say you go write the formula. It doesn’t work that way. You need real expertise of people who do this for a living.”

CCJEF Overview for Norwalk Public Schools, June 3, 2014


11 responses to “‘Unfair’ Connecticut education formula to be challenged this fall”

  1. piberman

    Curious that Norwalk’s Legislators haven’t been in the lead here, especially our Democratic Legislators who belong to the Democratic super majority. Of course the real problem is that the lion’s share of ECS goes to the major welfare cities and the Governors priority has been funding our over paid public unions. So it will be a long wait for better distribution for Norwalk, Maybe a Republican governor could offer more help. But it has really been a Democratic problem. After all the super majority had bern around a long, long time. So a call to action for Democrats. Senator Duff ? Where are you ?

  2. Casey Smith

    Connecticut’s largest city in terms of population is Bridgeport, but Hartford had their ECS cap removed following Sheff v. O’Neill, so Hartford gets top dollar. I’ve been told that part of the formula is also based on the grand list, which could theoretically put a small town like Avon with many high price tag homes on it higher up the list than a municipality, like Waterbury. From what I’ve heard, no body really understand the distribution formula, but then again I haven’t heard of one single District that said, “Wait a minute, you’re giving us too much money!”

  3. anon

    @Berman, No fluff, no Duff.

  4. One and Done.

    The city generates well over $500 million a year in tax revenues for the state between income taxes and sales taxes and anything under the if it moves tax it category.
    And we’re supposed to get happy when they decide to give us $10 million as opposed to 9.5 million to build for our futures.
    Duff is a nice buy, but he has sold out his constituency a long, long time ago for his personal ambitions. Frankly a little tired of seeing him wherever a camera is too. WTF is that accomplishing?
    One and Done.

  5. Joanne Romano

    Perhaps each town / city should deduct a per student stipend from monies sent to Hartford each year. Having been to many an ECS hearing in the past I can assure you that the commissioners do not hear/listen to one single thing we have to say. It’s almost laughable the disparages between cities/towns. But keep in mind also that in order to enact change, changes need to be made within the bodies on the commission. There is absolutely no representation for the “Gold Coast” i.e. Fairfield County. When looking at the ECS formula one might ask themselves what the reason is for this…
    Norwalk-$10,095,131-11,039 students as opposed to
    Meriden $53,783,711-8,279 students. A complete breakdown is as follows: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2012/rpt/2012-R-0101.htm
    Take a look and see if you can find rhyme or reason. You will have to do research on student population and student rations per race age etc. but its worth looking at. All students should have the same opportunities for the best education possible. A complete revamping is needed but not likely.

  6. EveT

    Thanks to Joanne Romano for a reality check. “…the commissioners do not hear/listen to one single thing we have to say. … There is absolutely no representation for the “Gold Coast” i.e. Fairfield County.”

    This is not the fault of any individual politician, it’s a systemic and long-standing problem. It stems in part from the fact that the majority of CT legislators are not from Fairfield County and look upon Fairfield County as the rich part of the state that, in their view, doesn’t need or deserve any help. They have more votes than the Fairfield County legislators.

  7. Joanne Romano

    Right on the money (pardon the pun) Eve…they really don’t have a clue!!

  8. piberman

    Norwalk received about 10.1 million, much larger Stamford about 8 million and the combined surrounding 5 towns together about 6.5 million. The 5 towns have a roughly equal population but more than twice the income. Stamford has a substantially larger population and moderately larger incomes. These aren’t huge disparities so the politicos who claim Norwalk is owed tens of millions are blowing smoke. Of course, if Norwalk had elected officials and citizens who paid attention to municipal finance we wouldn’t have the 5th highest paid teachers in CT. Not much sympathy in the Legislature for Norwalk – a city that spends its hard earned income on high teacher salaries with unsatisfactory results. Even the teachers refuse to live here. So ECS will continue to be the battle cry of politicos. ECS is really old, old news.

  9. Joanne Romano

    Stamford is of course shortchanged over and over again especially due to the diversity level among students. But and this is a big but, perhaps if students weren’t continually put into categories of ethnic backgrounds and driven with the understanding (which to me is a bunch of @#$%%^^&) that only some groups of students have the ability to learn and excel then and only then will we realize that all children are born equal with most times an equal footing to learn if given the chance and then maybe, just maybe we wouldn’t have to separate students into separate classes dumbing them down and keeping them behind their peers and creating the need for all the teachers, sub teachers, special teachers etc. which suck up a huge portion of monies intended for the classrooms. Get rid of the labels on school applications. Stop assuming that there is a difference between ethnicities we were all created equal, treat our kids as equals. The list of names is endless when it comes to scholars and successes in all ethnic groups. Put the money back in the classrooms where it belongs and not to overpaid administrators who without labels placed on our kids would not have jobs!!! We are doing all these children a huge disservice by telling them if they belong to this group or that group that their learning abilities are different. When I went to school we were all the same, in the same classrooms and doing the same work. If a child had difficulties with a subject the teacher, not 12 specialists helped that child. Why not stop coddling and start caring and then perhaps monies will be distributed evenly amongst all students so everyone gets the education they deserve.

  10. Kathleen Montgomery

    Joanne, Thanks for your insightful comments. Lest folks mistake your words, I would add that teachers care and do not coddle. Teachers wish they had the environment you describe where all of their professionalism and time could go to teaching to everyone. They could get the job done right.

    Enter the federally mandated state testing over a decade ago: Due to failing scores (whereby several student subgroups were labeled as failures)and the mandate that includes punishing conditions, teachers all of a sudden are under the gun.

    Enter specialists, student scores tied to teacher evaluations, a narrowed curriculum that limits what children learn in schools, test prep upon test prep taking the place of best practices.

    Bottom line, there are not many teachers who would disagree with you. We’ve got to stop labeling in all aspects of education and get back to teaching kids the right way.

    And, please let’s not hear anymore about how overpaid teachers are. If anyone thinks the work is not worth the pay, step up and try the work of a teacher for one week.

  11. Joanne Romano

    Kathleen- Thank you for understanding what I tried to express, I find it so disenchanting when we choose to put labels instead of getting to the root of the problem.

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