Another school funding session is underway and so is the drama. Norwalk’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) upset parents over his honest questioning of the city’s return on investment, with so many kids not reading on grade level. He later apologized.
I cannot remember a time when Norwalk didn’t have a school funding problem.
Today, over 60% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and ~75% are high needs. All children deserve an equitable education, but meeting these needs has become an increasing financial challenge for Norwalk. Our most vulnerable are at the highest risk of falling through the cracks. Over the years, a racially diverse, middle class has left our schools for other towns. Would this have happened, if over the past decade, Norwalk had enjoyed its fair share of state Educational Cost Share (ECS) funding?
Created in 1988, the ECS formula followed years of lawsuits and challenges regarding equity in state funding. One of its aims was to consider property wealth when distributing financial aid across towns. In 2005, a lawsuit was filed, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell by 16 towns (including Norwalk) claiming the formula was still flawed, due to amongst other things: arbitrary caps on increases, inadequate aid for special education, weighting of student needs and inaccurate assessments regarding town wealth or ability to raise funds.
In 2016, a Superior Court Judge ruled that Connecticut had failed in its funding formula because it had “no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.” The school finance system — particularly the ECS formula — was not “rational, substantial and verifiable” and failed to address gaps in school resources or community wealth. The decision was appealed and in 2018, Connecticut’s Supreme Court reversed the decision, deciding 4-3 in favor of the state. The flawed formula was tweaked by the legislature, but remains largely unchanged. Disparity continues, as highlighted in the 2019-20 sample ECS data compiled below:
Fast forward to today. In addition to the CFO questioning the Board of Education’s operating budget increase, he also expressed concerns over capital spending, if Norwalk assumes too much debt.
What’s behind the latest struggle?
The same issue Norwalk’s always had – the state’s ECS formula. If spoken of by elected officials or their surrogates, it’s accompanied by excuses or shrugged shoulders.
Hartford’s drive for density in Norwalk is accompanied by zoning and tax policies disconnected from the realities of funding our schools. Why does City Hall still dole out years of developer tax breaks when we struggle with education funding? This story has been playing out for over a decade. Considering Hartford enjoys the upside of Norwalk’s density, via additional income taxes ($155 Million sent in 2018; ranking us 8th out of 169 towns, according to the Dept of Revenue Services) it’s infuriating to see the paltry amount returned. How does the state justify a ~$200 million regional high school in Norwalk that nobody asked for, that we must bond, and promise 80 percent reimbursement, but NOT help cover learning costs inside our schools? The new high school is already over budget, minus a swimming pool and blows Norwalk’s school construction budget out of the water, threatening other K-8 projects.
What are Norwalk’s top elected officials doing?
Our state senator and mayor held a rally in Darien, appealing their rejection of the state’s Open Choice program, where students in struggling urban districts can attend suburban schools. When top leaders use political capital for a PR stunt for 16 kindergarteners out of Norwalk’s 11,000 + students, instead of lobbying Hartford for funding, they should be apologizing! Until parents understand the bigger financial picture and call on the state senator, mayor, common council, superintendent and Board of Education to talk to Hartford – nothing will EVER change.