Betraying educational cost sharing in Connecticut? (Updated)

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Update: On December 29, 2016 (between Christmas and New Year’s Eve), the CT Mirror reported that the Malloy administration would cut education cost sharing and municipal aid grants (capital improvement) mid-way through the year. The largest education grant (ECS) cuts will most directly impact public schools in more affluent towns, while the cuts to municipal aid (capital improvement for things like street, building, school repairs, and the like) cut more deeply in the cities. In addition to cutting education funding for public schools, cuts to capital improvement grants in the cities (Bridgeport loses $2.4 million, Hartford loses $1.9 million) will also impact local education budgets and public schools indirectly. Municipalities and school districts will have to decide on how and what to cut mid-year, a difficult challenge, since raising more revenue mid-year is unlikely if not impossible. This was an unusual and likely unprecedented mid-year cut in ECS and municipal. This comes on the heels of the Malloy administration (CT SDE) requesting applications for new privately-managed charter schools and charter schools facilities grants earlier in the week. These new mid-year, holiday-season cuts added to previous cuts to ECS funding during the 2016 legislative session reported here.

For Dianne

As we face what CT Voices for Children recently described as “arbitrary austerity”, there are new battles for State education funding that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago. The CT Mirror recently reported that the Connecticut Governor’s revised budget would cut all Educational Cost Share (ECS) funding to 28 wealthy towns and would cut a portion of funding from 111 other towns in Connecticut. I have a number of questions and concerns about cutting all or some of the ECS for these towns, even if they are middle income or very wealthy towns.

In order to make ECS work politically, it’s important to make sure every town and city gets something along a progressive scale – even if it’s a minor amount. After the Horton v. Meskill lawsuit, legislators in the 70s and 1980s were forced to acknowledge that the State was ultimately responsible for providing public education and that there was an over-reliance on local property taxes to pay for public education as guaranteed by the State.

The grant program they created eventually became the Educational Cost Sharing and today it provides funding to every town and city on a progressive basis, that is to say that each town receives a grant that is based on their ability to pay for their schools. The idea is that the State helps pay for public education in addition to local funds generated from property taxes in order “share the costs” of providing public education.

For some towns and cities, the ECS funding from the State is the largest single source of school funding, and for others the grant is supplementary to local revenue. Ideally, every town and city gets some state funding along a progressive scale, which is added to local funding generated from regressive property taxes. However, as the CCJEF case and attorneys like Wendy Lecker argue, the problem with the ECS grant is that it is largely underfunded to provide an adequate education to all students in Connecticut and the method of determining the amount of funding is not progressive or rational enough to be equitable.

So here are some of my questions and concerns.

By cutting and reducing grants for these wealthy and middle income towns and flat funding the 30 lowest income, Black and Latino districts, does this set up the Educational Cost Sharing as only a supposed “low-income, Black & Brown program”?

Does the ECS grant program then become more politically vulnerable in the future without all towns and cities getting aid, thus undermining the broad support it enjoys from all towns and cities in CT?

As my wife, Dr. Cotto, pointed out, there are white, Republican legislators from wealthy towns fighting for ECS funds alongside white, Black, and Latino legislators from the cities. It’s not everyday that there is near universal support in the legislature on a particular program or grant, particularly for public education.

Also, if the idea of the ECS is to base funding on a progressive, rational basis, then what rationale is there for an arbitrary elimination or cut of this funding for some towns and cities?

As my former colleague, Orlando Rodriguez, argued several years ago, there are problems with the exact components of the ECS formula along with its funding and implementation. Specific issues include the fact that some towns and cities are underfunded and overfunded based on past formulas set by the legislators. In short, the Legislature has made somewhat progressive formulas for allocating the ECS grant, but never funded it fully, nor cut anybody that should have received less (e.g. hold harmless). Arbitrary cuts don’t fix any of these problems.

Finally, cutting all or part of ECS funding for these very wealthy towns can be interpreted as a backdoor tax increase to those towns. Here’s why: If these towns want to maintain their current overall spending on education, they might have to raise local property taxes when these State cuts happen. I understand that there may not be a lot of sympathy for wealthy towns having to raise already low property tax rates, albeit in a roundabout way of cutting State education or municipal aid. I get it.

Thinking ahead, take as an example State Representative Gail Lavielle (R) from Wilton, who is a member of both the Appropriations and Education Committees. Will arbitrarily eliminating all State ECS funds to a wealthy town like Wilton make Representative Lavielle more or less likely to support State public education spending in the future, particularly the ECS grant?

This budget proposal to cut out or reduce wealthy and middle income towns from ECS funding on an arbitrary basis departs from the concept of progressive, rational cost sharing for public education. Will legislators and residents of Fairfield, Greenwich, Wilton, and similar towns have even less a reason to care and fight for public education in other parts of the state, having nothing to fight for in terms of ECS funding at the State level? My worry is that the next time, when they come for funds in the rest of our school districts, the ones that enroll low and middle-income White, Black, and Latino schools, we will be even more on our own to fight for those ECS dollars to fund public education and our schools.

A Conversation on “SBB” School Funding in Hartford

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The Hartford Public Schools uses a very unusual funding system called “student-based budgeting” (SBB). In other districts across the country, they use the term “weighted student funding” (WSF) rather than SBB.

Many Black and Latino majority school districts are moving towards this funding scheme and with scant evidence that “SBB/WSF” improves overall resources, equity, or educational outcomes. Based on my experience here in Hartford, CT, I have my doubts on this “voucher-like” funding system.

The New Haven Public Schools want to move to a similar school funding system as Hartford and other cities across the country. In this video interview, I sit down with Chris Willems and Jill Kelly to discuss my experience and concerns with student-based budgeting in Hartford so they can learn how it might work (or not) in New Haven. I also propose some criteria for a fairer funding system. Below there are links to SBB and WSF in Hartford, New Haven, and elsewhere.

Here are a few quotes from the interview:

  • Under this model, “many of the principals find that they don’t have enough money for all of the things that they used to be able to provide.”
  • “More than anything else, weighting student funding and the school-based budgeting provide kind of the illusion of equity.”
  • “We have to ask the question: why is it that the Black and Latino, and relatively poorer school districts, are being asked to do these really unproven and somewhat exotic reforms in terms of school funding, rather than saying that we should be getting the funding from the state and the local, and the federal government as well, to provide the sorts of educational opportunities that are available in the suburbs?”

Resources on “SBB/WSF” Funding

“Student-based Budgeting” in Hartford:

Guide to Student-Based Budgeting

“Weighted Student Funding” in New Haven:

Ed Board Seeks Change to School Funding, Aliyya Swabby.

SBB and WSF in Other Cities:

Jill Kelly: Arguments Against WSF

Other articles on SBB:

Where did Black & Latin@ teachers in Hartford go?

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Several months ago, former Hartford school board member Dr. Shelley Best posted a photo of herself with a handful of white teachers and an administrator in the background. Dr. Best, a Black woman, took the “selfie” photo at a district workshop about the “achievement gap”. In the caption of her Facebook post with the photo, she commented, “In a room full of folks talking about us (and the educational achievement gap) that don’t look like us … hmmmm …”

The Hartford Courant wrote a story months after the event and focused on one of the white teacher’s hurt feelings about being captured in the photo frame and Dr. Best’s protest. This led to a brief, but intense, flurry of essays about teacher diversity, white folks missing the point, personal defenses, and a reprimand of Dr. Best. Looking at some basic staffing data, an important question adds to Dr. Best’s concern – where did the Black and Latino/a teachers in Hartford go?

When Dr. Shelley Best wondered where all the Black educators were during the workshop several months ago, she was on to something troubling. The Hartford Public Schools has steadily lost Black and Latino/a teachers over the last decade, while adding white teachers during the same period.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.30.29 PMSource: CT State Department of Education, 2015

Public staffing data provided by the State Department of Education (CEDAR) shows that the Hartford Public Schools lost a substantial percentage and number of Black and Latino/a teachers from 2004-12. In 2004-05, 15% of all Hartford teachers were Latino/a and 15% were Black. In 2012-13, roughly 10% of all Hartford teachers were Latino/a and 10% Black. In other words, a net total of 155 Black and Latino teachers disappeared from HPS, while the district added 95 new white teachers. As a result, the proportion of white teachers in the whole district rose from 68% to 77% from 2004-12.

With this limited information, it’s not entirely clear why HPS has lost so many Black and Latino/a teachers. The state’s public staffing data does not tell us about the on-the-ground factors that might “push” and “pull” teachers of color into and out of the profession (Irizarry & Donaldson, 2012). The public staffing data doesn’t reveal whether these Black and Latino/a teachers in Hartford experienced layoffs, were pushed out/fired, retired, found other more lucrative or fulfilling work, or were promoted to other positions in Hartford or elsewhere.

In the case of the Hartford area schools during this period (2004-12), there were also unusual policies and factors that could have led to this steep disappearance of teachers of color. These unusual events and policies included the great recession, expanded public school choice programs in the Hartford region, and assorted neoliberal education reforms. These factors could have impacted the entry and exit of Black and Latino/a teachers from the Hartford Public Schools.

The great recession, caused by the near collapse of the banking industry, resulted in teacher layoffs/reductions in force through the capitol region. These school districts in the capitol region included 35 town-operated school districts around the City of Hartford, which is associated with the Hartford Public Schools. The largest declines in the number of teachers of all racial/ethnic groups in these districts happened from 2008-09 to 2009-10 and from 2009-10 to 2010-11.

Interestingly, the capitol region school districts never rebounded in terms of adding back lost teachers (from 2004-12), but Hartford did rebound and in a very different way. After the banking collapse, HPS added white teachers even as it continued to lose Black and Latino/a teachers. On the other hand, the other 35 capitol region districts added a smaller number of Black and Latino/a teachers (mostly the latter) even while continuing to decline in overall, particularly in the number of white teachers after the great recession. Despite adding a small number of Black and Latino/a teachers; the 35 capitol region districts’ percentage of Black and Latino/a teachers remained level from 2004-12. (See the chart below)

Source: CT State Department of Education, 2015

As the enrollment of students in public school choice programs has increased, so has the number of teachers working in interdistrict magnet and charter schools. (See chart below) This rapid growth is one clear result of State policy increasing funds and policy supports for public school choice programs that are operated by separate, non-traditional school districts such as CREC and charter districts. In the case of magnet schools, the growth has come as a result of implementing the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation settlement.

Comparison of Total TeachersSource: CT State Department of Education, 2015

The Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), a regional district that operates interdistrict magnet schools, and the Hartford-area charter school districts added to their numbers of teachers in all race/ethnicity categories from 2004-12. In fact, the CREC magnet school district and Jumoke, Odyssey, and Achievement First – Hartford charter school districts more than doubled their (general education) teacher force from 2004-12. In addition to white teachers, the racially segregated Jumoke Academy and Achievement First-Hartford added several Black and Latino/a teachers over the last decade, thus increasing their combined proportion of these groups of teachers. (See the interactive data visualization below. Place your cursor over any bar segment to see the number of teachers in each category.)

Source: CT State Department of Education, 2015

Over the last decade, Hartford started (and ended) programs and neoliberal policies such as school closures, staff reconstitution, principal “autonomy”, privatization, hyper-accountability, reduced economic security for teachers, preferential hiring for inexperienced and mostly white Teach for America participants, intradistrict and interdistrict school choice. Any number of these initiatives could have impacted have impacted the hiring and retention of teachers of color during these years.

Final Thoughts

At this point, and with the limited data available, it’s hard to untangle which single policy or event made the most impact. Did Black and Latino teachers in the Hartford Public Schools quit, retire, leave to other schools, or get forced out? If so, why? The short answer is that we don’t know.

The idea that some Black and Latino/a teachers left HPS (for currently unknown reasons) and took up work in other school districts in the region as HPS faced layoffs and other districts, magnets, and charters added staff is one possible explanation of where they went. The numbers invite this explanation as a possibility, but the data does not entirely confirm or explain what’s going on. We don’t have enough information yet to make a conclusion.

Combining the losses and additions of Black and Latino/a teachers for all public school districts (capital region, CREC, Hartford, charter schools), there is still a net loss of 27 Latino/a teachers and 39 Black teachers from 2004-12 within the capitol region. In other words, the Hartford Public Schools lost more Black and Latino/a teachers than were added in other local districts, including the magnet (CREC) and charter schools during this period.

Where did the Black and Latino/a teachers in Hartford go?  Hmmmm…

Letter to Norwalk Board of Education

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This was my letter sent to the Norwalk Board of Education on June 16, 2015 as an individual. My views are my own.

Dear members of the Norwalk Board of Education,

Several newspapers recently reported that the Norwalk Board of Education would be hiring a former Superintendent of the Hartford Public Schools (HPS). As a Hartford Board of Education member since 2010 and an educational researcher, I write to raise concerns about claims made about the Hartford Public Schools between 2006 and 2011.

A press release from the Norwalk Board of Education suggests that HPS improved test results and graduation rates because of a change in policies and a new superintendent in 2006. It is true that HPS embarked on a policy of expanded school choice and hyper-accountability. This included closing schools and reopening them as themed academies.

However, there is little evidence that these policies alone resulted in improved achievement and graduation rates. As I wrote in The Hartford Courant in 2011, there was a mixed result from these policies – at best. Most importantly, the apparent “increases” only began when testing and graduation policies changed to artificially inflate this data.

Hartford’s “historic” test result increases only began when low-income, Black, and Latino students with disabilities were removed from regular tests and allowed to participate in a separate modified assessment in 2009. By 2011, 10% or more of all Hartford students, all with disabilities, were selected for a separate test. While this was happening, the HPS superintendent and administrators took credit. They also took bonus money for the subsequent increases, caused in large part by removing these kids.

I have written extensively on this issue. You can read my Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant, my report for CT Voices for Children, and my TEDx Talk at Central CT State University on the issue. This is not speculation, but fact.

Hartford’s graduation rate also has a number of question marks. Between 2006 and 2011, several policies changed that inflated graduation rates. First, the formula changed to calculate graduation rates. This new formula has excluded hundreds of Black and Latino students. They have been transferred out of their cohorts, and effectively removed from all calculations.

Second, online credit recovery and the policy of mandatory minimum grade of 55% inflated graduation rates. Online credit recovery, required by State law in 2010, meant that students that did not pass a course the first time were allowed to take the course online instead.

Hartford’s “F-55” rule mandated that a student failing a quarter or semester would get a 55% percent. With this rule, a student could earn a 75% in one quarter and pass the rest of the course, even without doing any work or even showing up to class. The Hartford Board of Education never approved these changes for online credit recovery and the “F-55” policy.

The information is not new, but ignored. Elected board members in Hartford raised concerns about both the test scores and graduation rates with little response from the Superintendent or his successor. Interestingly, the video of the meeting in early 2011 where Board members confronted the superintendent about the test inflation was reported as “damaged”. This was the only missing or damaged meeting video in my six years of service.

Rather than outright success, much of what happened in Hartford can be explained by these data illusions. Also, the tremendous State investment in school choice, particularly magnet schools, under the Sheff v. O’Neill agreement has played a major role.

The Hartford Public Schools are still trying to recover from the considerable damage caused by the school “turnarounds” started in 2006 and the unregulated school choice system. Our district is in as much or more financial distress with the expansion of school choice programs beyond our ability to support them. Many of the “turnaround” schools have experienced their second closure and reopening. In many of the Sheff magnet schools and most of our non-magnet schools, our staff still struggles to meet the needs of all children. Even former proponents of these policies have come to question their viability and performance.

I believe deeply in the ability of our city’s children and families, mostly Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino folk, to succeed academically and thrive in life. That is what we have been doing for hundreds of years with substantially unequal and separate opportunities in education and the economy. Yet, the limited resources that sustained our Black and Latino communities are now diminished, dismantled, privatized, or provided to only selected students. These resources included broad academic curriculum offerings, sports, special education services, bilingual education, and libraries.

While you are free to make the decision that is best for Norwalk, I would recommend not to make that decision based on discredited claims about Hartford. What happened from 2006-11 in Hartford may have helped some kids, but came along with further marginalization of the most vulnerable children and families in our city. In Hartford, we are still working for equitable opportunity.

Robert Cotto, Jr.

Member, Hartford Board of Education

CT Charter Renewal Update: The Accountability is Still Flexible

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The State Department of Education has recommended to the State Board that six existing charter schools get renewed. Today, Wednesday, May 6, 2015, the State Board of Education will vote to approve (or not) those recommendations to renew the charters of six existing state charter schools in Connecticut. My quick reading is that charter school accountability is still always flexible, as I wrote here.

The charter schools up for renewal include ISAAC, Odyssey, New Beginnings, Explorations, Common Ground, and Stamford Academy.  Although all the schools are recommended for renewal, the conditions of their renewal vary. I’ve listed each school below with a summary of the recommendations and conditions. Click on the link to view CT SDE’s resolution for each school.

There a number of unresolved issues here. CT SDE lists some of the highlights and concerns at each school. The reports talk about culture and climate, finances, test results, and demographics. But some of the major issues are ignored.

Racial and ethnic segregation in charter schools? There are state laws prohibiting segregation in charter schools.

Comparing charter school test results with school district test results? That’s comparing apples to oranges.

Using test results from 2013 to make a decision about a school in 2015?

Also, Stamford Academy squeaked by with a three-year renewal and one-year probation. If that school was a regular public school, with the test results it has, it would have been closed, turned into a charter school, or converted to a charter management organization. Right now, it is a charter school operated by a charter management organization.

I can justify not closing the school, but now we have a massive contradiction. On the one hand, CT SDE uses low test results to justify the privatization of “turnaround” schools with high needs and limited resources and lots of children of color. And on the other hand, they will never close a charter school, managed by a private, charter management organization with similar or far worse academic results over time.

So the next time CT SDE or your school board want to close a school in your town because of test results, or some other reason, in order to make it into a charter or privately-managed school, you might ask, “where’s our flexible accountability”?

(Here is the meeting agenda and materials. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at the CT SDE Office in Room 307.)

Five year charter renewal

ISAAC – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Odyssey – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Common Ground – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Three year charter renewal

New Beginnings – three year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism. Must develop growth
targets and may face probation for not meeting goals.

Explorations – three year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism. Must develop growth
targets and may face probation for not meeting goals.

Stamford Academy – three year renewal, one year probation, must submit plans for improved academic outcomes, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism.