Hard Choices

There are few people in Connecticut defending the current system of distributing Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grants. Sure, there’s a formula that is supposed to guide annual appropriations, but there are two big problems. To start, the legislature hasn’t ever appropriated the level of funding the formula calls for. Given the economic tumult of the past decade and Connecticut’s somewhat anemic growth rate, it’s not hard to understand why this is the case.

Less understandable is how the legislature chose to allocate ECS funding. According to testimony submitted by Connecticut Voices for Children, the line item for ECS grants is about 77% of what it ought to be if it were fully funded. As I’ve noted in a previous post, some towns get much less than what they should expect at this funding level and some get more. A lot more.

ecsfrpl

The chart above illustrates how close each town is to their targeted grant at a 77% funding level compared to the town’s level of student poverty1. It’s pretty clear that there are many towns with low levels of poverty getting much more than they should be getting in ECS funding. Here’s the same chart with a logarithmic scale on the y-axis to make it easier to see which towns we’re talking about.

ecsfrpllog

Looking at this problem in real dollars shows a slightly different picture. A few towns (West Hartford, Danbury, Milford) are underfunded by millions and millions of dollars, while the big urban centers (Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven) are getting at least $10 million more than they are supposed to receive.

ecsfrpldollar

I’m not too worried about the big cities getting relatively more funding at this point. Our state’s education funding formula should gives more weight than it currently does to students with additional learning needs and to towns with high concentrations of poverty. These cities have both, so I think this divergence from their adjusted ECS grant is justifiable.

It’s much more difficult to come up with a good reason for overfunding districts with low levels of poverty. In effect, our state is providing extra subsidies to school systems in some of the most affluent communities in the state at a time when many school systems are struggling with their towns to meet the needs of their students.


###What did the Appropriations Committee do to address this problem?

The Connecticut General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee attempted to address this issue in their version of the Governor’s budget bill, H.B. 6824. While the Governor’s initial budget would flat-fund ECS grants for FY16 and FY17, the Appropriations budget would direct an additional $3.7 million in FY16 and $10.6 million in FY17 to some of the most underfunded towns.

Unfortunately, all other towns were held harmless, meaning that overfunded towns will continue to enjoy their ECS windfall at the expense of districts with greater financial needs. An updated version of the chart we started with doesn’t show a very different picture by FY17.

appropsfy17


###Making hard choices

What would happen if our legislators decided to end the overfunding of districts with lower levels of poverty? Would we be able to end some of the most egregious examples of under-funding in the current system of ECS grants?

First, we would need to decide which overfunded towns should lose their windfall. As noted earlier, I don’t think it’s wrong to overfund the big cities given the challenges they face. Instead, I’ll pick a limit of 25% Free/Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) resident students to decide which towns should lose their ECS windfall. More than a third of Connecticut students qualify for FRPL, so I think it’s a fair cutoff to determine “lower poverty” towns.

So how many towns are overfunded and have fewer than 25% of their resident students in poverty? Ten? Twenty? Nope - the answer is 88. In other words, more than half of Connecticut’s 169 towns are lower-poverty towns getting more ECS funding than they ought to - about $59 million extra each year.

That $59 million in overfunding to towns like Greenwich, Fairfield, and Guilford could go a long way towards bringing some of the most underfunded towns closer to their ECS target grants.

Let’s say we wanted to bring every town up to at least 75% of their adjusted ECS grant2. This would allow the state to continue providing additional funding to the state’s highest-poverty districts while ensuring that no other districts were terribly far off of their adjusted ECS grant. This would cost just under $45 million, but it would still leave a few districts with ECS grants that are millions of dollars less than they should receive.

proposedfix

proposedfixdollar

We could use some of the $14 million left over3 to ensure that no town was more than $7 million away from their adjusted ECS grant. This would impact four towns (Danbury, Hamden, Stratford, and West Hartford) and cost about $8.3 million.

proposedbonusfixdollar

proposedbonusfix

This would leave $5.7 million that could be used in a variety of ways to help improve the quality of education in Connecticut’s most challenging areas instead of subsidizing towns with relatively low levels of student need.


I can understand why the Appropriations Committee chose to address towns with severely underfunded ECS grants. It’s always easier to give towns more grant money than it is to take it away. It’s easy to say that as long as ECS isn’t fully funded, that no town should see a cut in their ECS grant.

Those easy choices have consequences. The ECS formula, while flawed in many ways4, does call for state aid to be distributed according to town wealth and student need. Ignoring the formula’s prescribed distribution has placed the state in the position of benefiting pretty affluent towns at the expense of the underfunded towns. In my example above, the towns identified as underfunded had nearly a quarter of their students qualifying for Free/Reduced Price Lunch (22.6%). In the overfunded, low poverty towns, that rate is only 10.9%.

We elect leaders to make hard choices, but they’ve been taking the path of least resistance when it comes to ECS. There’s no way to get around it: the current distribution of ECS grants benefits our state’s wealthiest towns, forcing towns with more students in poverty to rely on local property taxes to make up the difference.

Every year our legislators use the underfunding of ECS as an excuse to continue this practice is another year of additional burden to the students and taxpayers in these communities. It’s time to stop taking the easy road and do what’s right for our state’s towns and students.


  1. All of the charts in this post use the size of a town’s name to represent the number of public school students that live there. That is to say, towns with more students will appear in a larger font than towns with few students. 

  2. Town’s adjusted ECS grant = Town’s fully funded ECS grant * funding ratio. In the current budget, ECS is only allocated 77% of what the formula calls for, so a town’s adjusted ECS grant would equal 77% of their fully funded ECS grant. 

  3. $59 million in overfunding - $45 million to bring every town up to at least 75% of their target grant = $14 million left over. 

  4. More on this in future blog posts, but to keep it short, I think the ECS formula should weight more heavily for poverty, provide a weight for concentrated poverty, and include all public schools. Yes, that means I think we should fund districts, magnets, and charters the same way. 


More data please

Two weeks ago, Rob Stellar wrote about the low rate of college completion among Hartford Public School graduates on TrendCT. More importantly, he raised some important questions that may better explain what’s going on here:

“What is preventing so many students who graduate high school from enrolling in college? Is it for financial reasons or lack of access to other resources/college prep programs? How well do Hartford high schools prepare students for college? For the students that do complete college, what type of degree did they obtain? What sets these students apart from their peers who do not finish college?”

Rob doesn’t presume to know the answers to these questions - he suggests that more data is necessary to understand the complexities of this problem. A reasonable suggestion to help identify specific ways to help students in Hartford complete college.

A recent CT News Junkie op-ed intended to counter Rob’s CT Trends piece by claiming that we need “no more data” on the subject, pointing to examples of how proficiency rates data and graduation standards may have been compromised in Hartford.

However, the answer to incomplete or flawed data shouldn’t be no data - it needs to be better data.

A recent article in the New York Times emphasizes the need for analysts to ask “What did I miss?” when evaluating easy-to-measure data. At the end of the article, the author notes an under-reported aspect of Bill James’ Moneyball approach to baseball analytics:

“The numerical revolution he spearheaded was never about putting traditional experts out of business. It was about acknowledging our ignorance, then gathering and testing data, whatever its source.”

This is exactly how we should be trying to understand how well our students, teachers, and schools are doing and what we can do to improve them. Let’s collect more data, test it, and use it to improve what adults are doing to improve student outcomes.

Many schools are already implementing a smart use of data to improve instructions and operations, but there’s still room to improve and include more sources of data. Student surveys, growth models, and more accessible data for researchers are just a few ways we could achieve a more robust educational dataset in Connecticut.

As we work towards building more robust datasets in the field of education, we also need to make sure we’re engaging in rigorous, transparent analysis. We also need to acknowledge the limits of what data can reveal to us. As noted statistician John Tukey observed:1

“The data may not contain the answer. The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data.”

Let’s collect more educational data and apply it appropriately - it’s the best way to answer how we can improve the way our public schools serve students.

  1. Quote is from Jeff Leek’s The Elements of Data Analytic Style - I highly recommend this e-book to any data analyst! 


Data analysis on the go

A recent Fast Company article describes Tableau’s latest app, Project Elastic, as a potential game-changer in mobile data analysis. The app would allow iPad users to move from an Excel file in Mail.app to an interactive chart with a few quick taps. Filters can be applied/removed with swipes, zoom levels are adjusted by pinch/spread gestures, and charts can be shared via email.

It’s a cleverly designed interface, but Elastic suffers from a critical problem: it assumes the user is accessing clean datasets.

Contrary to popular belief, the real work of a data scientist isn’t sexy. A large chunk, if not a majority, of a data scientist’s time is typically spent cleaning messy data. By encouraging users to jump straight from an email attachment to data exploration, Elastic can lead to garbage-in, garbage-out analyses. This risk is only compounded by the targeting of the app to casual analysts.

Elastic is an admirable effort by Tableau to bring data analysis to the iPad, but it will encourage a flawed approach to data analysis. To paraphrase Jeff Leek, good data science may look easy, but so does bad data science. Elastic looks cool, but the appealing interface is a mask for an insufficiently rigorous approach to data analysis.

I have serious doubts that quality data analysis can be performed from a tablet or mobile platform.

When asked about the potential for the iPad replacing the PC, Steve Jobs compared it to the replacement of trucks by cars:

“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people. … I think that we’re embarked on that.

Mobile computing is replacing PC’s for millions of people around the globe for tasks like email, photography, personal finance, and gaming, but there are still many jobs that ought not be done on a mobile device. Attempting to move data analysis to the iPad makes about as much sense as trying to move a piano with a Prius - just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it should be done.

Bottom line: if someone emails you a spreadsheet, you should probably wait to get to a PC before attempting to dig in to the data.


Outdated funding systems are limiting options for families in Connecticut.

The Growth of School Choice in Connecticut, 1995-2015

For years, families in Connecticut demanded more public school options for their children. Over the last two decades, state funding for magnet and charter schools grew significantly.

choiceGrants

Even with this level of growth, thousands still end up unable to attend magnet schools or charter schools due to limited capacity. Wouldn’t it seem reasonable that lawmakers would work to expand the number of public school options available to families?

Unfortunately, Connecticut may be heading in the opposite direction. Some lawmakers are considering putting a moratorium on any further expansion of magnet schools and charter schools.


Choice funding in Connecticut: too big to exist as line-items?

Simply put, the current system of funding school choice is expensive and downright Byzantine. A student can have their public education funded at least 10 different ways based on the type of school they attend.1 As the chart below indicates, this complicated system of funding is now equivalent to more than 15% of the main grant to school districts, the Education Cost Sharing grant (ECS).

choiceVsECS

Freezing funding to schools of choice would be an easy way for legislators to avoid answering a simple question: why should more than 50,000 students have their public schools funded in different and inequitable methods?

What’s the solution?

It’s going to be a lean budget year with many tough short-term choices, but lawmakers need to think seriously about the future of our school finance system. I hope they keep these principles in mind:

  • All public school students should have their public education funded by a combination of the state and by their town of residence.
  • The ratio of state/town funding should be determined by the relative wealth of the town.
  • A student’s total level of funding should be determined by their learning needs.
  • The full funding for a student should follow them to the public school of their choice.

A funding system guided by these principles would benefit the state by focusing the school finance system on town wealth and student need instead of the label a public school carries. It would benefit towns by giving them a predictable level of costs - no matter what schools families choose, towns would contribute the same level of funding to their education. Most importantly, it would provide families with more choices for their children.


  1. As noted in a previous post, this was detailed in the ECS Task Force’s Final Report 


A Thought Experiment

What would happen if we actually followed the ECS formula?

There are two significant flaws in Connecticut’s current school funding formula, known as ECS (Education Cost Sharing):

  1. It does not reflect the actual needs of towns and students.
  2. It does not treat the thousands of students accessing school choice equitably.

I plan on addressing those concerns in subsequent posts, but for a moment, let’s take ECS at face value and assume that the underpinnings of the formula are correct. If political processes had not brought Connecticut off of the ECS formula and we distributed current funding according to the formula, how might that change how dollars flow to towns?

Right now, the ECS formula is somewhere around $650 million under-funded. That is to say, the legislature and governor have not found a way to follow the ECS formula as it was originally intended to operate. In lieu of actually following the formula, the money that flows from the state to towns to school districts has been manipulated by politicians each legislative session since the ECS formula was adopted.

What would happen if our elected representatives followed the distributive principles of the ECS formula, so that if the state could only contribute 80% of what the formula dictates, each town would receive 80% of what the ECS formula dictates they should receive?1 Let’s figure it out!


In fiscal year 2015 (FY15), ECS was about 75% funded, meaning that the state is paying about three quarters to the dollar of what the ECS formula actually dictates.

You’ll be shocked, shocked to learn that some towns are earning more than 75% of their ECS entitlement, while other earn less!

Which towns are doing better/worse than they should be doing if current dollars were distributed based on the ECS formula?

absdiff

Which towns are benefiting from the current flow of ECS funding?

TownAdj. FY15 Over-funding
Hartford*+$21,489,136
Bridgeport*+$19,716,791
New Haven*+$18,926,723
Naugatuck*+$4,757,282
Meriden*+$4,352,828
Groton+$4,183,143
Colchester+$3,355,802
Wolcott+$3,339,954
Norwich*+$3,217,643
Ledyard+$2,969,683

Unsurprisingly, the biggest beneficiaries of the current distribution of ECS dollars tend to be Alliance Districts, a collection of 30 low-performing districts the Malloy administration placed a priority on supporting with additional funding (identified in the table with a *).

Twelve towns are under-funded by at least $5 million according to the current ECS formula. West Hartford falls $20 million short. Danbury is $17 million short and Milford is more than $11 million under-funded:

TownAdj. FY15 Under-funding
West Hartford- $20,029,204
Danbury*-$17,489,274
Milford-$11,180,390
Norwalk*-$9,681,090
Stratford-$8,680,338
Shelton-$6,910,435
Branford-$6,389,163
Wethersfield-$6,246,413
Middletown*-$5,983,252
Southbury-$5,557,434
Hamden*-$5,269,591
Stamford*-$5,263,781

It’s surprising to see five Alliance Districts on this list (again, identified with a *). The combined under-funding of these five districts (Danbury, Norwalk, Middletown, Hamden, and Stamford) is about $43 million, which is less than the $60 million over-funding of the big three cities (Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven).


Looking at raw dollar differences is helpful, but Connecticut is a state with a few large towns and many medium and small towns. Let’s compare what towns receive now as a percentage of what they ought to receive if we followed the ECS formula with current appropriations:

pctDiffECS

Now we’re able to see which towns are really benefitting from the current flow of ECS funding. There are 53 towns in Connecticut that receive about 32% more ECS funding than they ought to, given the current level of total ECS appropriations. This includes affluent towns like Greenwich, Darien, Fairfield, Madison, and Westport.

Which towns get the short end of the stick? Well, there are a dozen towns that receive less than half what they ought to receive under the ECS formula:

TownFY15 Funding as % of Adj. FY15 Funding
Branford23.0%
Woodbury30.7%
Farmington30.9%
Southbury32.1%
Orange33.3%
Shelton43.3%
North Haven44.5%
Trumbull44.5%
Middlebury45.3%
Rocky Hill45.8%
Westbrook46.6%
West Hartford47.6%

The place I call home, Branford, gets less than a quarter on the dollar of what we should be getting according to ECS with the current level of total funding distributed via the ECS grant.


Again, I don’t think the current ECS formula is correct,2 but this thought experiment highlights the key challenges of reforming Connecticut’s school finance system if we kept total spending flat:

  • The “big three” Alliance Districts are doing much better than other Alliance Districts. Connecticut’s big three urban cities (Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven) are doing very well under the current flow of ECS dollars, which is in stark contrast to other high-needs towns that are significantly under-funded (Danbury, Norwalk, Middletown, Hamden, and Stamford). In order for the big three to gain funding, there needs to be either an increase in overall funding or adjustments to the ECS formula to more heavily weight for poverty.
  • There are many (mostly affluent) towns that are receiving more than their fair share. Many towns have already hit the ceiling on what they should be getting under a fully-funded ECS formula. Any funding reform that gives more weight to towns with high poverty would mean reduced funding for these towns.
  • Suburbs are getting a raw deal. While there are some Alliance Districts that are relatively under-funded, the most disadvantaged towns are middle-class suburbs like Branford, Orange, and West Hartford. These are towns that should be pushing for immediate school finance reform, since they would stand to see the largest relative increase in funding, even with no new money added to the system.

Instead of waiting for a court to compel the legislature to change ECS, leaders of middle-class towns and Alliance Districts should be working to develop an school finance “grand bargain” that could be implemented without significant additional revenue. This would likely need to include schools of choice (magnets, charters, etc.) along with some sort of regulatory relief to affluent towns that would stand to lose funding.

Will any leaders take on this challenge?


  1. I’m using a set of ECS funding targets from a handout at the ECS Task Force, slightly edited to prevent any districts from receiving less ECS funding under a fully-funded ECS formula than they get right now. If/when more up-to-date figures become available, I’d be happy to update this post accordingly. All code used to generate charts/data in this post is available on my GitHub page

  2. I would prefer a formula that included more recent wealth/population data and more weight for towns with highly concentrated poverty.