Connecticut In The Grip Of The School Funding Fallacy

In the realm of the thoroughly disproved fallacies of progressivism, perhaps the very most thoroughly disproved of all is the idea that throwing more taxpayer money at failing unionized schools will improve the education of the students in those schools.  Just a couple of weeks ago, in a post titled "How Do You Measure 'Success' In K-12 Education?" I covered the latest of umpteen such failed efforts in the federal government (the $7 billion School Improvement Grants program), and here in New York City, (Mayor de Blasio's "Renewal Schools" program).   After multiple years and vast amounts of money, neither of those programs could demonstrate any positive impact of any kind in any metric selected, from test performance to graduation rates to college enrollment.

This is just one of those things where no amount of actual evidence can ever convince people that it's not working. Today, the state of Connecticut is about to head down the same path yet again.  The chance that Connecticut's new initiative will work is exactly zero.

Recall first the big news in Connecticut last September: In long-running (commenced in 2005) school finance litigation instituted by Yale Law School faculty, a judge in Hartford issued a 90 page decision declaring Connecticut's school finance system to be "irrational" and "defaulting on [the state's] constitutional duty" to provide all students with an adequate education.  I covered that decision here.  The court's decision did not set any specific remedies, and seems to contemplate a lifetime job for the judge in overseeing and meddling in the state's school finance system.  The court's decision is currently on appeal and temporarily stayed.

However, on Wednesday Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy made a budget presentation in Hartford.  According to coverage in the New York Times yesterday, Malloy said that he "broadly . . . agreed with the [court's] decision," and that "it would be better for the state to 'design and take our own medicine' rather than leave it to the courts."  OK, Gov, what's the big concept for fixing things?  You guessed it!  Throw more taxpayer money at failing unionized schools.

In the Times, their headline tells you all you need to know about their take on the story, which will not surprise you:  "Malloy Moves to Narrow gap Between Connecticut's Rich and Poor School Districts."   What exactly is the "gap" they are talking about?  Nothing in this article will tell you.  Do you get the impression that the state of Connecticut is granting more money to rich school districts than to the poor ones.  Undoubtedly, it is the intent of the headline writer, and of the article's author, to give you that impression.  But of course, that impression would be completely false; indeed, it would be the complete opposite of the truth.

Fortunately for us, Connecticut puts out some pretty thorough data on its public school funding.  Here is a chart with per student funding by district for each of Connecticut's districts for the 2015-16 year; and here is a chart of source of revenue by category (state, local, federal) for each of Connecticut's districts for the 2014-15 school year.  Put the two together, and you can get a pretty good idea of what if any "gap" might exist between the "rich" and "poor" districts.

For example, with a little arithmetic, we learn that, as of the most recent year available (2014-15), among Connecticut's "poor" urban districts, Hartford got about $14,900 per student from the state; New Haven about $12,500; and Waterbury about $9700.  Among its "rich" suburban districts, Greenwich got just over $1000 per student; Darien got about $950; New Canaan got under $600; and Fairfield got a big $535.  Gap?  Now, you may think that it is perfectly appropriate for Connecticut to give most to all of its state funding to its poorer districts, while leaving the richer districts mostly on their own.  But really, to call this a "gap" in favor of the richer districts couldn't be more ridiculous.

But maybe, you think, the "gap" they are talking about must be the gap that exists between the rich and poor districts after the rich districts top up their school spending with the vast local resources.  If so, you will be surprised to learn that total school spending per student in Connecticut does not not vary much as between the richest and poorest districts, and there is no obvious pattern that richer districts always spend more.  Some of the poorest districts spend at or near the top, and some of the richest districts spend less than some of the poorer ones.  Using the same six towns as before, total per student spending, this time for the 2015-16 year, was: Hartford $19,313; New Haven $18,248; Waterbury $15,219; Greenwich $21,331; Darien $19,318 (about the same as Hartford); New Canaan $19,576; and Fairfield $16,561 (well less than Hartford or New Haven). 

But as always, the only solution they seem to be able to come up with to fix the failing city schools is more taxpayer money.  From the Times:

Increases of around $10 million or more would go to 11 municipalities. Hartford would get the largest increase, more than $47 million, followed by Waterbury, which would receive a $43 million increase. Both cities have a substantial number of poor families. 

That $47 million increase for Hartford will (if it goes through) represent about a 14% increase in its annual state school funding.  For Waterbury, a smaller city currently receiving substantially less, the $43 million would represent almost a 25% increase.

But if more money translated into better and more successful schools, then why is it that Hartford, already spending $19,313 per student, isn't achieving about the same results as Darien and New Canaan, and well better than Fairfield?  Don't expect the Times to enlighten you on such questions.

Meanwhile, classic "blue" jurisdiction Connecticut is facing approximately its 30th annual budget "crisis."  The additional money for these poor urban school districts will have to come from somewhere -- either from the (already meager) grants to the richer districts, or from other state spending, or from increased taxes.  Any of these options will make Connecticut even less competitive in attracting new businesses and entrepreneurs, and in keeping its wealthy citizens from leaving for more attractive states.  Given that it is absolutely certain that the additional money will not improve the schools, would Connecticut's poor be better off instead with a better business climate that might attract more businesses and jobs?  Nobody in Connecticut thinks to ask such questions.