“Until those who are in power decide to give some power up, this means absolutely nothing.”
State Board of Education Member Erik Clemons is talking about discussions on the state’s funding formula — a hot topic ever since Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that the way the state doled out education spending was “irrational” and “unconstitutional.”
Clemons is not against fighting for equitable funding.
He repeatedly agreed that the fight was important, but his answer to the question “what can the state do?” reared into a topic often overlooked: Systemic racism and classism that’s at the root of the educational inequity in the state.
Last week, I spent some time at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference. Clemons was among five panelists at the conference’s kick-off event on the future of education funding in Connecticut.
Led by education finance expert and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project Katie Roy, the panel brought together a diverse group, including former Bridgeport Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz, Director of Common Ground Charter School Liz Cox, Bridgeport Parent and lead Plaintiff of the federal suit Martinez V. Malloy Jessica Martinez, and Richard Wareing, the chairman of Hartford’s schools board.
Thursday’s panel strayed from the usual path. Instead of focusing on “how broken the system is” — everyone knows it’s broken — the discussion centered on why it hasn’t been fixed and what we can do to overcome those challenges.
Education Funding Is Complex For A Reason
The biggest takeaway: The way we fund education is complex for a reason.
“For the life of me, I don’t think it needs to be so complicated,” said Rabinowitz halfway through the panel discussion. Like the rest of the panel, she advocates for a more transparent, unified funding formula.
“My budget was $120 million dollars less than Hartford’s budget because there was money from different sources coming in that isn’t apparent to everyone,” said Rabinowitz.
She’s talking about the disparity between Bridgeport, and cities like Hartford and New Haven. Both spend thousands more than Bridgeport despite educating similar populations of students.
“the way it works now,” said Wareing, the chairman of Hartford’s school board. “it’s not in my interest in Hartford to be supportive of Fran in Bridgeport.”
“The people who are pulling the strings are less inclined to want to change that,” said Wareing, who admitted that Hartford benefits from the opaque way the state doles out money.
As Wareing put it, Hartford’s good at “finding pots of money.” Hartford receive similar ECS grant funding, but they also take advantage of other state grants, not all of which are open to Bridgeport; for example the state magnet school grants.
It’s About Who’s Not At The Table
“I think there is something that we’re not talking about,” said Clemons during an exchange on the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund schools. “What we’re not talking about is who’s not at the table when those things happen.”
If that table is the state legislature, Roy explained, which is largely controlled by legislators from Connecticut’s affluent suburban towns, “it’s not in their political interest to resolve the funding problem that we see in our higher need communities.”
That’s it in a nutshell: Who sits at the table matters. Who has access to information about how the system works matters — so, what’s the solution?
Nearly all on the panel agreed a unified formula is needed, but how do you get there?
“In order to impact the people who are most suffering,” said Clemons. “Then you need to ask them what they need… I think you start there.”
Parent Jessica Martinez agreed it has to start from the grassroots level. “People don’t know what they don’t know,” said Martinez. “We could all bum rush Hartford tomorrow, it’s wonderful. We should organize it… However, I will leave you with this, reach one person, talk to your neighbor.”
Check out the full video of the panel discussion:
If you’d like to learn more about the way the state doles out education funding, the CT School Finance Project’s website is a great resource: Here’s a link