State and local leaders discuss issues in Connecticut school finance

The complex issues surrounding Connecticut school funding were the focus of a Dwight Hall community discussion Monday night.

The discussion — which featured state representatives Rob Heagney and Cameron Staples and Rob Smuts ’01, city policy analyst for New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — was part of Dwight Hall’s “Intersections in Education” series. The series centers on Connecticut’s system of raising revenue for education, its implications for urban and suburban communities, and problems currently facing urban education.

Both state and local funds support Connecticut public schools; the latter are raised through property taxes and bonds issued for capital spending. Currently, most state funding is distributed through the Education Cost Sharing grant program, in which property-poor districts receive a higher percentage of their minimum “foundation” of support than property-rich districts.

The program started in the 1980s after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in the 1977 case of Horton v. Meskill that the system for funding education then in place was unconstitutional because it relied too heavily on local property tax revenues.

“Personally, I think that [Horton v. Meskill] was an important and extremely positive change — making sure the state stepped up to the plate,” Staples said.

However, according to some critics, the Education Cost Sharing program places too much of a property tax burden on municipalities, especially given the disparity in taxable property value between central cities and suburbs.

The property tax system of raising revenue, Smuts said, is not an adequate or fair system in either urban or suburban communities. Smuts said this system also makes it harder for a city like New Haven, where a proportionally smaller group of people bears the tax base, to compete with wealthier suburban communities.

“It doesn’t work for us, it doesn’t work for [a suburban community like] Orange,” Smuts said. “A much more intelligent mix would be to shift away from property taxes and move toward other ways of funding education.”

Both Smuts and Staples said the current system provides a keen incentive for people to leave urban areas like New Haven and move to the suburbs to escape high property taxes.

“The tax system pushes people away from cities,” Staples said. “You have to just love cities to want to pay so much more to live here.”

However, Staples said people will tend to stay in urban areas if they think the local schools are of good quality.

“If we don’t improve the quality of the schools, we’re not going to breathe life into, or keep life in, the cities,” Staples said.

Smuts cited the New Haven magnet school program as “a good start” toward improving the city’s educational system but added that there is a continual need for more reform.

“It’s very hard to teach when you have concentrated poverty,” Smuts said. “Even some of the people who might benefit [from change] might have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it.”

Heagney stressed that urban education reform is not considered a waste of money in the suburbs.

Suburbanites have “a perfect willingness to be participants in a solution, but the solution has to work,” Heagney said.

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