Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Schools vs. tax cuts turns out to be not so easy
A bill to increase spending at Connecticut schools should be an easy sell. Everyone supports schools, in theory, and the state has plenty of money. In practice, there turn out to be a few questions.
The General Assembly’s Education Committee unanimously approved a bill recently that would speed up the state’s phase-in of new funding metrics, which sounds fine, especially in a time of surplus. It would also apply Education Cost Sharing grants to charter schools, an aspect that has gone a bit under the radar.
Charter schools have long been controversial because funding that goes to them does not go to the regular public school system, which serves the vast majority of students. Charters also have a way of acting like public schools when it’s convenient, even as they are privately run and exempt from some rules that govern other schools. There hasn’t been much growth in charter enrollment in the state in recent years, but that could change with the funding and other bills moving forward.
Charter schools, unlike regular public schools, don’t take everyone who simply shows up, and the ability not to serve everyone means their metrics should be viewed skeptically. A number of lawmakers, apparently ignorant of all this, have voiced loud support for charters this session, which should give pause to supporters of public education.
Schools are just one part of a larger question of what to do with all this money the state finds itself with. It’s possible no one in Hartford knows quite how to handle a surplus. Connecticut had so many years of endless deficits that everyone is still waiting for the situation to revert to its former self.
That dread doesn’t apply to tax cuts, which is another story.
It’s smart to be cautious. But this is also an opportunity not to be wasted. The state has real needs, the kind that can only be rectified with major funding increases. If not now, when?
In terms of education, everyone knows what the problems are. Money from local schools comes mostly from property taxes, which means towns that take in the most money from that source have the most to spend. Spending money means higher test scores, better-paid teachers, and more amenities and services.
It doesn’t mean cities don’t have “good schools,” because many people do very well in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. There’s nothing more poisonous than extolling the “failure” of city schools. But those schools are underfunded.
A coalition of school leaders has formed to seek more funding from the state in the form of Education Cost Sharing, which aims to make up the difference between what property taxes provide and what schools need. But even with all those dollars sitting in our state bank account, it is no sure thing it will come to pass.
The sticking point, advocates say, may be the governor’s office. The argument is that we shouldn’t overcommit — we may have money now, but we need to be ready in case of recession.
It’s not easy to find a better use of increased funding than K-12 schools. People who get a good education are less likely to require other kinds of spending in later years.
The governor’s office has said school enrollment statewide is down, which is true. But enrollment is falling in suburbs and, most acutely, rural areas; it’s not falling in the cities, where the needs are greatest. And even as statewide enrollment is down, the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and English-language learners is up.
The school solution we need is desegregation and regionalization, separating the direct link between property taxes and school funding. That is not going to happen in the near term. A halfhearted attempt by the Lamont administration in 2019 to regionalize back-office functions across districts, which was a cost-saving move rather than a bid for educational equity, led to such a firestorm from the suburbs that it was quickly abandoned.
Going back to that plan and moving further, by combining city and suburban classrooms, is a nonstarter at least as long as the current governor is in office, and likely much longer.
So we need intermediate steps. Speeding up ECS funding is a way to get there.
But if we’re going to be cautious about spending, as the governor’s office clearly is, why is there no similar caution about tax cuts?
A recently floated legislative idea to sunset planned tax cuts went over poorly, likely because everyone realizes that a sunsetting tax cut is the same as a delayed tax increase, and would thus hurt everyone politically. But it doesn’t answer the question of why it’s OK to cut revenue in the long run but not to increase spending. They both have the same effect on the budget.
It’s taken as a given that tax cuts are always good. Maybe they are. But if we’re serious about fixing what ails the state, in education and beyond, that type of thinking isn’t going to work.