"Let's not kid ourselves," said Bridgeport Mayor John Fabrizi. "This will involve raising more revenue from the personal income tax or the sales tax."
Mr. Fabrizi spoke, bluntly, at a recent press conference in Hartford after a school funding lawsuit was filed by a group of municipal officials and educators called the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. The group commissioned a study earlier this year that claimed 145 of the state's 166 school districts were inadequately funded.
The suit, CCJEF vs. Rell, asks the court to declare the funding system unconstitutional, order the governor and General Assembly to come up with an alternative and appoint a special master to coordinate the process.
The first question people should ask is this: Why do so many difficult funding challenges default to the courts? This is at least the fourth lawsuit related to school funding filed since the 1970s. Further, court orders on other fronts have been used to procure better services and more money to care for children in state custody, for citizens with mental retardation and to relieve prison overcrowding, among other needs. And, the state's recent experience with court-appointed monitors has been a disastrous and expensive lesson in poor accountability.
The current school funding system, called Education Cost Sharing, isn't doing the job when it comes to fairly parceling out state funds to subsidize local schools. The formula has been revamped so often that it's now more a political makeshift than anything else. The main support of public schools is still local property taxes, a burden that is becoming increasingly difficult for many towns to bear. Because so much money must be raised for schools, towns are lured into bad land-use decisions to produce more revenue. A town shouldn't have to bring in a Wal-Mart to pay for its schools.
Rather than another lawsuit, the governor and legislature ought to attack the problem, do their own research and reach their own solution. Connecticut needs a fair funding formula. More money is not the only answer, of course. And people must realize that the more the state spends on local schools, the more it will usurp control.
A new system will involve hard choices, as Mr. Fabrizi says, but it's also an opportunity to be creative. Perhaps the state should pick up the tab for unfunded mandates or curb its appetite for such mandates. Shouldn't a statewide or regional property tax for education be considered? Should gaming revenue be earmarked for schools, as was briefly tried in the 1970s?
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has appointed a task force to study the ECS formula.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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