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.

Connecticut Schools Excelling without Testing?

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When it comes to standardized testing, there are a number of stories we can tell. One of the dominant stories about education goes something like this: ‘Kids must take standardized tests every year or else we can’t hold adult accountable for learning – all kids, every year, in all schools. Parents need to know how their children are doing in school. For low-income, Black, and/or Latino & Puerto Rican children this is doubly true. Once the test data comes in, then assign merit to individual students. For groups, punish the “low-performers” and reward the “high-performers”.’

Another story is that Black, Latino, and Puerto Rican children and adults have been forced to take standardized tests since IQ tests were first administered in the 1910’s. This testing served to mask and justify the underinvestment, academic tracking, segregation, and miseducation in schools. (Au, 2008) Within these conditions, we persisted. Occasionally, lawyers won a civil rights case by citing test data. Oftentimes the tests helped authorities select the most meritorious among us for advancement.

But what would happen if there weren’t high-stakes tests to sort children and rate teachers, schools, and districts? Would the schools still function? Would kids still learn? How would we know who to reward and who to punish? How might this disrupt these two very different stories about testing?

There are, in fact, a small number of public schools where kids don’t take high-stakes tests in Connecticut. For these schools, the CT Department of Education does something very unusual, contrary to what we are told should or needs to be done to schools. CT SDE simply invents rankings for these schools. No tests needed. As former CT State Representative Jonathan Pelto might say, “Wait, what?”

Under the original NCLB law, the state judged schools using kids’ test results, then labeled them as “In need of improvement” or “Not Making Annual Progress”/”Made Annual Yearly Progress”. With the NCLB Waiver in 2012, CT schools instead received new, more pleasant-sounding labels such as “excelling”, “progressing”, “transitioning”, “review”, “focus”, or “turnaround.” These labels were similarly based on standardized test data, as well as a few other data points such as graduation rates when they were high schools.

In Connecticut, there were 60 schools where children did not take high-stakes tests in 2012-13. So those schools can’t be labeled something like “excelling” or “transitioning”, right?


The 60 schools where kids haven’t had high-stakes tests were in two main categories. The categories included:

a. Schools that only served grade pre-k to grade 2

b. Schools that only served grade 9, or grade 11, and/or grade 12

These grades did not have high-stakes tests such as the CMT or CAPT in 2012-13. In Connecticut, children in public schools in pre-kindergarten through grade 2, grade 9, grade 11 and 12 did not have annual, high-stakes tests in 2012-13. But these 60 schools only had children in these “non-tested” grades. Still, they may have had local diagnostic tests or assessments such as the “DRA” to check in on kids’ academic progress. The high schools may have had graduation rate data that could be used to help assign a rating. But the key data point to make the rankings–the test results–didn’t exist.

Additionally, there were two schools (+2) with fewer than 20 students taking the tests, so their test results weren’t used for “accountability” purposes, but they were given a rating. (Briggs High School and Explorations charter school)

CT SDE found a way to work around the fact there wasn’t any test data to label these 60 (+2) schools. According to its school “performance” reports, the State of Connecticut, “analyzed district-wide data and applied the results of those analyses to schools without tested grades.”

This means that the State just looked at how the kids in all the other schools in the same district did on the standardized tests (CMT or CAPT) in grades 3 to 8 and 10, then applied the most frequent ranking across the district to any schools without tests.


Here’s the State’s explanation from the school “performance” reports from 2012-13. In this example, Coventry Grammar School was labeled “Excelling” based on the test results from the other schools in Coventry.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 9.33.33 PM

So to recap.

As far as we can tell from the state’s open data, the students in Coventry Grammar School did not take the CMT, CAPT, SBAC, PARCC, or any other high-stakes tests in 2012-13. The school only had children in kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2. As of this writing, these grades were “untested” by the state, so the whole school was “untested” by CT SDE. Yet, this school was labeled as “excelling” based on the test results from other schools in Coventry. That’s excelling without testing!

Because these schools didn’t take the tests for one of the reasons listed above, the State Department of Education simply made up a ranking based on data from other schools. As the report reveals, this practice served to appease the Federal Department of Education.

So who were these schools? They were primarily suburban and rural schools with only elementary school grades, such as pre-k to grade two and a handful of high schools too.

These 60 schools had, on average (mean), 310 students, 66% white students and 27.5% student eligible for free or reduced price lunch. These schools were generally more affluent, more white, more suburban, and had smaller enrollments than the average school in Connecticut in 2012-13. Here is a full list.

Connecticut Public Schools Without High-Stakes Testing – 2012-13


Among this group, and in order of relative prestige, 7 schools were placed into the “excelling” category, 16 were labeled “progressing”, 34 “transitioning”, 4 in “review”, 1 in “focus”.

Only one school among this group-Ramón E. Betances Early Reading Lab School-was labeled in the “turnaround” category. It’s somewhat unclear how the school got this ranking.

Betances was (and is) arguably one of the more isolated schools by race, ethnicity, income, and language status in Hartford. In the past, overall test results were relatively lower than the city’s magnet schools and suburban schools. But the school also went through a “reconstitution” a few years ago in the name of raising test scores. (i.e. firing all staff because of low-test scores and bringing in new people)

However, CT SDE did not report any test data for this school in 2012-13, even though it did have a third grade class, a “tested” grade. The State provided no performance report for this school either.

Again, it’s unclear why the school received the ranking without any test data. As a school that had a federal “School Improvement Grant”, CT SDE may automatically placed Betances into the “turnaround” category. It’s also important to note that the Hartford Courant reported that there was a CT SDE investigation into accusations of test cheating at the school, so maybe that’s a part of all this case.

All this labeling, ranking, and sorting without standardized testing in these schools!

To be sure, no Connecticut public school students in grades pre-kindergarten, grades 1, 2, 9, 11, & 12 never took the CMT or CAPT high-stakes tests. (I know, that kind of bursts the, “All kids need to be tested every year” bubble.) So these 60 schools were special cases of schools with children entirely enrolled in non-tested grades.

By assigning these schools a ranking based on the test results of other schools in the same district, CT SDE quietly patched up another hole in the test machinery. But this patch opened up another hole in the story we are told that all kids need to be tested every year in all schools, or else!

This patch is difficult for CT SDE to defend. It busts a hole in the claim that tests are needed to tell parents how their children are doing in school. And this quick fix comes as more evidence surfaces that CT SDE has actively suppressed parents’ rights to refuse the tests, or opt out, as protest towards better education policy and practice.

The concept of more holistic accountability of schools is defensible, including periodic testing of a representative sample of the students in a district or school to get a picture of basic academic skill development. This is how the NAEP has worked for decades – testing a representative sample of kids in a handful of grade levels, not every kid, every year, in every grade. This is similar to how public opinion polls and the U.S. Census or American Community Survey work.

Remember, the dominant story says, “Testing is doubly important for low-income, Black, and Latino kids so they can learn. Without the testing, how can we know the kids are learning? How can parents know how their children are doing?” But these more advantaged schools didn’t need high-stakes testing to exist, get support from their communities and the state, communicate to parents how students were doing in school (I’m guessing that they have found other approaches), or receive a ranking that lead to the rewards and punishments that we are told they need. How was it that these more advantaged schools communicated children’s academic progress without high-stakes tests every year?

There are drastic differences in power between parents and schools in white compared to communities of color. So this testing business can play out differently in schools. Periodic testing might be used as check-in and provide data that can empower low-income, people of color. But annual high-stakes testing (HST) isn’t designed to erase historic inequities. Instead, high-stakes testing more often exacerbates those inequities. (Valenzuela, 2004)

Take Hartford, CT, where I live and I’m on the school board. About half of Hartford is Latino or Puerto Rican, a third of the population is Black (with many West Indian families) and 10-15 % white folks. The testing that supposedly offers parents more power is often disempowering.


Occasionally, parents speak about the test data to get attention, then their concerns pivot to mismanagement, mistreatment, under- or selective investment, and miseducation. The same test data is used by people with more power to justify mismanagement or under-service, close schools, offer hefty bonuses to teachers, staff, and administrators, provide more school choice “options”, define kids as “gifted” or “deficient”, and make claims about the people in the schools. Parents have power and agency, but testing doesn’t erase the differences in institutional power that they face. Instead of help in Hartford, the schools often get more tests.

The State already claims that schools are excelling, progressing, and transitioning without testing. A stale vision for public schools might call for more, better tests and more data. Why can’t all schools move forward and ditch the high-stakes tests and replace this enterprise with a different system of accountability?

A new vision must remember the other story about testing. That story says that low-income, Black, Latino & Puerto Rican kids have received underinvestment, tracking, segregation, and miseducation. Over the years, we’ve received plenty of testing and it has been used to obscure deep inequity. Still, we have persisted and navigated this world.

If remember this story, then all this testing business becomes more curious. If the testing stopped, then we might have time to look back and think more deeply about why all of our schools aren’t always “excelling” despite all the annual, high-stakes testing.

(Note: If you learn, work, or send your children to any of these schools, I would love to hear how they manage without all the testing. Comments are activated.)