News

Lawmakers are jeopardizing school funding equity — again (CT Mirror)

Op-ed

View the full op-ed at https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/lawmakers-are-jeopardizing-school-funding-equity-again/

By Katie Roy

Roughly a year and a half ago, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bipartisan state budget that contained a new Education Cost Sharing formula to distribute approximately $2 billion annually in state education funding to local public school districts.

The passage of a new ECS formula not only ended the years-long trend of allocating state education aid to local districts via block grants driven by political power and historical precedent, it ushered in a more equitable, logical, and transparent way of funding our state’s local public schools.

Currently in its first year of implementation, the new ECS formula specifically takes student learning and community needs into account, and includes three “need-student” weights that increase per-student state education aid for students with additional learning needs, such as those who are from low-income families as well as students who are classified as English Learners.

However, while the structure of the ECS formula is strong and should be maintained, an education funding formula is only as good as the data it uses. Unfortunately, the spending plan adopted by the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee last week ignores this principle and threatens the accuracy and integrity of the new formula by using an inaccurate count of low-income students and continuing to identify such students through an outdated and unreliable method.

Under the current ECS formula, students are identified as “low-income” if they qualify for the National School Lunch Program, commonly referred to as free or reduced price lunch or FRPL. While the spending plan adopted by the Appropriations Committee uses a count of FRPL-eligible students for the ECS formula, it uses a count that the commissioner and chief financial officer of the Connecticut State Department of Education have repeatedly said — in front of the Committee — is inaccurate and has “data integrity” issues, which are currently being investigated by the department.

While this may seem like a minor and highly technically policy detail, an accurate count of low-income students matters not only to the integrity and efficacy of the ECS formula, it impacts how much state education aid is distributed to districts.

Under the new ECS formula, school districts receive an additional 30 percent of the ECS formula’s foundation amount ($11,525) for students who are identified as FRPL-eligible. The ECS formula also includes a concentrated poverty weight, which, for districts with 75 percent or more of their enrolled students identified as FRPL-eligible, increases the foundation amount an additional five percent (for a total of 35 percent) for each student above the 75-percent level.

Districts should receive additional funding for the low-income students they serve as research has shown students coming from low-income families tend to require additional resources and support to achieve at the same levels as their peers from higher-income families.

However, because the ECS formula, rightfully, takes into account the low-income populations of districts when determining state education aid, it is critically important that low-income student counts be accurate and trusted. If those counts are inaccurate, then Connecticut is once again not faithfully following the ECS formula and not distributing state education aid in the most honest and transparent way possible.

The inaccurate low-income student counts used in the Appropriations Committee’s spending plan stem from the Committee continuing to use an outdated and soon-to-be obsolete method of identifying students as eligible for FRPL.

Historically, students have been identified as eligible for FRPL by asking families to complete and return paper-based, non-verified household income surveys to school. However, researchers have warned this may have resulted in inaccurate low-income student counts and, instead, recommend low-income students be identified using multiple income verified measures. Additionally, the use of paper-based household income surveys is quickly being phased out across Connecticut as more districts take advantage of the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows all students to receive no-cost meals if their school or district qualifies and participates in the program.

In the biennial state budget proposal he presented to the General Assembly in February, Gov. Ned Lamont heeded the advice of researchers, and the State Department of Education, and called for a change in how low-income students are identified and counted for the ECS formula. Lamont proposed Connecticut move to a more accurate, more inclusive way of identifying low-income students called direct certification.

Direct certification is a method by which students can be deemed eligible for no-cost school meals through the NSLP, and allows students who are categorically deemed at-risk of hunger to qualify for no-cost meals without needing to complete an application for FRPL.

Using this new method, a student is directly certified by Connecticut’s Department of Social Services for FRPL when the student is enrolled in income verified social services programs that are available to low-income residents of the state, including SNAP (previously known as food stamps), TFA (also known as temporary cash assistance); state- or federally-funded Head Start programs; or children’s Medicaid (HUSKY). Students can also be directly certified if they are in foster care, homeless, or designated as a runaway child.

Additionally, it is important to note that changing how the state counts low-income students for purposes of calculating ECS grant amounts has no effect on how many students receive free or reduced price lunch meals through the NSLP. All students currently receiving free or reduced price meals will continue to receive them no matter what low-income student count is used for the ECS formula.

Furthermore, using direct certification would NOT reduce the number of students counted as low-income under the ECS formula. The State Department of Education has stated 182,319 students would be counted as low-income under the ECS formula for fiscal year 2020 using direct certification — an increase of 142 students over the current year low-income count.

While direct certification is not perfect (no method of identifying low-income students is) and may not capture every student needing additional resources, it is a far more accurate and more inclusive method to use for the ECS formula as it will better ensure state education dollars are going to the students and districts that need them.

Unfortunately, the Appropriations Committee rejected the governor’s call for a more accurate, more inclusive way of counting low-income students for the purposes of calculating ECS grants. Instead, the Committee chose to knowingly use inaccurate low-income student data and continue an identification method that is outdated and obsolete.

For years, Connecticut did not faithfully abide by previous ECS formula iterations causing the state’s education aid to not be equitable or transparent. By knowingly using inaccurate low-income student data, the Appropriations Committee is continuing this regrettable history.

Our state cannot continue to make this same mistake again. We must finally faithfully and honestly follow the ECS formula, and that starts with using accurate student data and updating how we count low-income students to a more accurate, more inclusive method.

Katie Roy is the executive director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization based in New Haven that works to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school and state funding challenges that are fair to students, taxpayers, and communities.