It seems like a reasonable standard: No town shall receive less money from the state to help run its schools than it did in the previous year.
But in practice this means several Connecticut school districts in the wealthiest towns — towns that have fewer high-need students — are receiving more money from the state than they would otherwise be entitled to.
Forty-three towns — including Darien, Easton, Greenwich, New Canaan and Westport — will this school year collectively receive $20.8 million more than dictated by the formula that is intended to direct state money to school districts, according to data from the Connecticut State Department of Education.
Some advocates and legislators are now questioning the wisdom of ignoring the formula as they work to close a $1.1 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year.
“When we talk about getting a formula that takes into account poverty and works for the whole state, you can see where we’re challenged here,” Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chair of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told the budget chief of the education department earlier this month. “We haven’t had the courage — I’m not putting it on you — the courage to promote a school reform effort like Massachusetts that has said, we’re going to start by making sure districts are differentially funded based on the poverty and the challenges that they face.”
Frustrated that so many districts are overfunded while needy districts remain significantly underfunded, the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission is circulating a list of the over- and under-funded towns around the state Capitol.
West Hartford and Waterbury top the list of the most underfunded districts, based on student need, the town’s wealth and ability to raise revenue locally. Overall, the state’s formula is underfunded by $738 million.
“That overfunding — that’s money that’s not going to the towns that are underfunded,” said Orlando J. Rodriguez, a legislative analyst with the commission, a state-funded advocacy group. “When towns are held harmless, that’s a problem… That overfunding is just going to get worse and worse and worse. The formula is not broken; the problem is we don’t fund schools based on the formula.”
If the current trend continues, the commission estimates that in four years the overfunded districts will be collectively receiving $38 million more than the formula says they need.