Connecticut is in the midst of a wave of unusually sweeping reform plans constituting a grassroots rebellion against waste and corruption in the state’s education systems.
This May, the first selectman (mayor) of Chester presented local officials with a startling plan to reform education in the district: Pay students not to attend public school.
Tom Marsh wants to give $1,500 a year to families who send a child to vocational school and $3,000 to families who homeschool, and to put $5,000 in a college scholarship fund for anyone transferring to a private high school. Marsh also wants to give a full two-year community college scholarship worth $5,000 to students who graduate from public high school in three years.
Because the per-pupil cost at Chester’s regional high school is nearly $14,000, Marsh believes all these choices would improve the quality of education while reducing property taxes.
Marsh is not alone in his efforts. On June 30 the Enfield board of education held a special session to review the findings of a citizen cost-cutting committee. The 17-member committee’s suggestions included replacing some public school teachers with low-cost college interns, restricting the use of school vehicles, and increasing employee contributions to benefit plans.
In Redding, the taxpayer group Nonpartisan Action for a Better Redding (NABR) is preparing to send a postcard to every one of that community’s 4,000 homes, inviting citizens to join a group that will review school expenses with an eye toward trimming 10 percent from the municipal budget. The goal is to provide residents with a lower-cost alternative to local public schools when they are asked to approve the next budget in spring 2009.
Costs Have Doubled
Connecticut may once have had the reputation for being exceptionally generous in its education spending, but in recent years, disenchantment with the price of government, especially as it relates to public schooling, has been growing.
The reasons are obvious. Over the past 25 years, Connecticut’s student population has increased only 10 percent, yet the inflation-adjusted cost of schooling more than doubled—to $8.8 billion in 2006, up from $3.4 billion in 1981.
Seventeen years ago, when the state enacted an income tax, politicians promised real estate and other taxes would fall. Instead, they soared.
Almost all the increased income went to the public sector, via an education cost-sharing formula that uses income from residents in the suburbs to subsidize urban schools. Teacher salaries and benefits climbed in every school district, thanks to binding arbitration laws skewed to give public employees an advantage in collective bargaining negotiations.
Now the average teacher salary in Connecticut is the highest nationwide—$57,750 per year, excluding benefits. At the same time, the nonpartisan taxpayer watchdog group the Tax Foundation awards Connecticut the dubious honors of having both the heaviest property tax burden and the largest total tax burden per household of any state.
According to a calculator on the NABR Web site, even the smallest municipalities unnecessarily have spent millions on school construction, much of it to meet predicted population booms that never materialized.
The calculator (www.betterredding.org) enables a resident of any town nationwide to compare the cost of constructing and staffing a new building (or addition) to the cost of simply subsidizing the overflow number of students to attend private, parochial, or homeschools.
“You could extend the subsidy to children already in such schools and still save hundreds of millions long term,” says NABR President David Bohn.
Today, Connecticut taxpayers find themselves caught between plunging real estate values in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis and steadily increasing property taxes, and getting little for it. The National Assessment of Educational Progress puts eighth-grade proficiency figures in the state at 53 percent for writing, 37 percent for reading, 35 percent for math, and 33 percent for science.
Connecticut’s constitution does not permit voter-initiated statewide referenda. But most towns in Connecticut fold school budgets into the municipal budgets, which can be voted on at town meetings, by annual referendum, or by a petition-inspired referendum. Last spring, citizens across the state registered their displeasure with the high cost of mediocre schools.
The affluent towns of Farmington, Stonington, and Ridgefield, for example, all rejected proposed spending plans from their politicians and school boards. In June, the voters of suburban West Hartford, where schools have traditionally ranked among the best in the state, defeated the budget by an astonishing 7,037 to 3,711 votes. A record 85 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities had budget referenda; the median approved spending increase was 3.8 percent, down from 5 percent last year and 5.3 percent in 2006.
Mike Guarco, chairman of the Granby finance board, has formed the Connecticut Municipal Consortium for Fiscal Responsibility, a bipartisan alliance of elected officials representing 117 towns statewide. The group fights against binding arbitration, “prevailing wage” laws for public building projects, and burdensome state mandates such as a requirement that all student suspensions be supervised in-house. These are the three largest cost-drivers of K-12 education.
With this gathering grassroots rebellion—and with the archbishop in Hartford advocating a tax credit for corporations that help poor students attend private schools—the state’s public education establishment is growing increasingly nervous. Last December the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents wrote an unprecedented joint letter to every school board and superintendent statewide criticizing Dr. Armand Fusco, a retired school superintendent who advises citizen cost-cutting committees statewide.
Fusco has not backed down. Instead, he campaigns across the state to highlight most school boards’ lax accounting procedures: Computers and other equipment are not marked and tracked; superintendents’ credit cards are not audited; part-time public school employees can receive full-time benefits; and almost no school board has written policies to prevent waste and corruption.
Fusco believes Connecticut school districts could be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in unaudited student activity funds annually.
“Sadly, the number of school board members who can stand on principle … without the prodding of independent taxpayer groups seems to be small,” Fusco laments in his manual on Ending Corruption and Waste in Your Public School.
Lewis Andrews ([email protected]) is executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan free-market research group based in Hartford, Connecticut.