by John Elsesser
A “minimally adequate system of free public schools” is the new court standard for State education funding. Town and School leaders are stunned by the recent CCJEF v. Rell ruling. Unless reconsidered, the responsibility of moving our State education system forward rests with State elected leadership. We hope they accept this challenge and adopt a higher standard. Our State’s future depends on making this the top priority and working together to provide more than a minimally adequate education system.
So what’s the outline of the next chapter? Let’s revise the oft-quoted 3 R’s of education to: Reality, Resources, and Readiness. Even in the depth of an economic and self-image crisis we cannot afford further delay. This transition will require leadership, and setting political agendas and turf battles aside. This structural change will require everyone to give something to the greater good. Our children need the skills to have productive lives.
We need to face Reality on page one. We have created an overly complex and bureaucratic educational system. Connecticut has 206 public school districts with 1,441 schools/programs, 538,897 students and 52,641 certified staff. Regional high schools add another layer of administration and do not always have a coordinated curriculum with their feeder schools. These regional schools also have an accountability issue to the local taxpayers. Most have independent payroll and accounting systems and staff. 23% of students are in some type of Special Education program requiring an individual education plan with the district having the burden of proof if parents disagree with their assessment. The list of state school mandates from curriculum to teacher’s evaluations is lengthy and costly. Conditions of employment are subject to collective bargaining. It’s no wonder that school expenses require 70% to 80% of local budgets when including capital and debt service. We need to simplify service delivery, and develop a comprehensive seamless delivery approach with reduced administrative overhead. The reality is that reform, reorganization and regulatory reduction is required.
How do we get the Resource to move forward? Property taxes are no longer the answer. Connecticut’s taxes are already among the highest in the nation and changes to Federal deductions will make the impact more burdensome. The proposed shift of teacher’s pension expenses could require over 10% of a Town’s annual budget for a plan that local leaders had no role in negotiating or properly funding. We agree with the lower court’s overturned decision that Connecticut needs a rational education aid formula. The last round of education funding cuts targeted smaller poorer towns, with 27 eastern Connecticut towns receiving cuts equal to more than one mil in property taxes. Urban cities were also cut, and yet somehow 10 cities and towns in western Connecticut actually received increases in aid. If we need more funds to pay for enhancements or to fund pension liabilities we need to look at comprehensive tax reform, such as replacing the corporate income tax with some form of a gross receipts tax as recommended by the CT Tax Panel. Our business community needs educated workers and can help pay through a revised tax system instead of increased property taxes.
There are other resources we need to enhance. The CT Education Technology Council and CT Education Network (CEN) have opened doors to Open Source software which can reduce curriculum development costs and increase program coordination. But both schools and students need access to high speed internet. The State could take advantage of the decline in school construction grant requests to fund grants to make sure every CT public school and library is connected to the blazing-fast CEN Network.
The State also needs to address the digital divide by making sure that every student regardless of family income has internet access. It’s time to push the Telecoms into providing free or reduced price internet services to students or get out of the way.
What can we do about Readiness? Students need to graduate with a skill set for today’s economy and business needs. College is not the right path for all students. We need to reinvest in modern vocational schools. Every student needs some coding and computer/math skills. For the College bound we need to make sure that college coursework taken in high school is accepted by every State college to reduce the financial burden.
The courts have pushed education funding back to our State elected leadership. We challenge them to work with local town and school district leaders to start the next chapter. Minimally adequate is unacceptable for our students.
John Elsesser serves as Town Manager of Coventry and is Vice President of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Executive Committee of the Capital Region of Governments and is a member of CT Commission for Educational Technology. He also served on the CT Tax Panel and is a Past President of the Council of Small Towns.