While activists in Connecticut push for an increase in education funding from the state government, a projected state budget deficit stands to thwart their efforts.

As Gov. Dannel Malloy prepares next year’s budget address to the General Assembly, interest groups across the state, including Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, are asking for an increase to the state’s education budget. The state currently distributes the majority of education funds to local governments through the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant, a program that has rarely been fully funded. With a $365 million deficit confirmed earlier this month and $170 million in spending cuts announced by Malloy Wednesday, ECS may remain underfunded through another budget cycle.

“We would like to see an increase, a significant increase, in ECS funding, but we recognize that it will be exceedingly difficult … to close our current budget gap,” Dianne Kaplan deVries, the project director for Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said in a Wednesday email to the News. “Current fiscal constraints, however, are no excuse for not fixing properly the state’s broken ECS formula and the entire system of how it funds traditional public schools, choice programs, [and] early childhood programs.”

The ECS grant was created in 1988 to equalize education funding across the state by providing aid to each student, giving more to towns with lower per capita income and less revenue from property taxes. Connecticut has the nation’s largest achievement gap between high-income and low-income students.

But the program’s funding has repeatedly been frozen or cut due to financial downturns. Funding is currently pegged at fiscal year 2009 levels, and barring an increase in the next budget, it will continue at that level through the end of fiscal year 2013. In the last fiscal year, legislators budgeted $1.89 billion for the ECS grant, only 72 percent of the target aid. The funding gap totaled over $700 million.

DeVries said the effects of underfunding include “unconscionable achievement gaps based on wealth and race,” low graduation rates, high youth unemployment, a weak economy lacking “a highly educated and competitive workforce” and increased costs for remediation programs in higher education.

Constitutional requirements may soon force legislators to increase education funding. In 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled that students were not only entitled to receive a free public education but also a “suitable” one that prepares them for higher education and employment. A trial is scheduled for 2014 to determine whether Connecticut’s schools are meeting these requirements.

In August 2011, the 12-member Education Cost Sharing Task Force was established to recommend changes to the distribution of ECS grant funds to satisfy constitutional requirements. The panel set out to re-evaluate the aid formula, which has been inhibited by outdated statistics and by aid caps and minimums added over the last two decades.

When Malloy first took office, he said fixing the formula was one of his top priorities.

“It’s broken, and we all know it,” he said in his first budget address. “We need to fix this formula once and for all, and we will.”

Although yesterday’s meeting of the Education Cost Sharing Task Force was canceled, the panel will likely reconvene in January to finalize its recommendations. Lawmakers on the task force could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In their interim report from January 2012, the panel recommended an increase in funding to the ECS grant. In absence of full funding, the panel is considering phased increases.

DeVries said she hopes the committee’s recommendations will include a study that can update 2005 figures on the costs necessary for students to meet the state’s academic benchmarks.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) also supports an increase in education funding to remove the burden from local governments. A report released by CCM earlier this month stated that 51.4 percent of education costs will be paid by local government, while only 42.9 percent is paid by the state government. According to the U.S. Census, Connecticut relies on property taxes to fund public schools more heavily than any other state. In 1977, the state Supreme Court ruled the state education finance system was funded too heavily by local property taxes.

Thirty-five percent of New Haven’s most recent budget was dedicated to education costs. The state ECS grant provided $153 million towards the total $174 million budgeted for schools.

In order to qualify for the ECS grant, towns cannot cut education funding in the next fiscal year, unless their enrollment has fallen. But even then, a town can only reduce its budget if its schools meet state performance benchmarks.

Kevin Maloney, CCM’s public relations director, said the already underfunded ECS grant program needs increases, not cuts.

Plans to close the budget gap have not been completed yet, said John Noonan, the director of education and workforce programs section at the state’s Office of Policy and Management. He said cuts to programs are a decision for the governor to make.

The budget passed earlier this year increased education funding by nearly $100 million.