Connecticut Panel Weighs ‘Money Follows the Child’ Reform

Published January 10, 2011

A special panel advising the Connecticut State Board of Education is considering a “money follows the child” approach as part of a broader reevaluation of how the state funds public schools.

At stake is full tuition for approximately 28,300 Connecticut students who attend magnet schools or public schools outside their home districts. The state currently lets the child’s home district keep part of the state funds for that child’s education, even if he or she attends another publicly funded school.

Panel members backtracked after news stories in early December reported they had rejected tying public funds exclusively and entirely to students. The matter remains “under discussion,” members say.

“All [stakeholders involved] agree that we need to change the way we fund schools to funding based on the kids actually enrolled and based on their needs,” said Alex Johnston, a panel member and CEO of Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), a school reform advocacy organization.

Decision Twice Deferred
The 17-member panel was scheduled originally to discuss this idea and several others on December 20. State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan deferred the day’s agenda to the January 10 meeting because three panel members were absent.

At an earlier December meeting, local educators and union officials vigorously opposed the prospect of tying state funds to individual students, because schools are currently strapped for cash and some might lose more if the idea were adopted.

The entire panel in early December had  agreed to six principles to guide further discussions, including one Johnston says paves the way for possibly endorsing “money follows the child”: “funding students based on their learning needs, and not municipalities per se,” he said after the December 20 meeting.

‘Beginning of Reasonable Reform’
The advisory panel’s recommendations to the state board are nonbinding, and any action would require legislation and the signature of Gov. Dan Malloy (D).

The current discussion in Connecticut is a baby step, said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“As a matter of principle, it’s the beginning of reasonable reform,” McCluskey explained. “At least the orientation is away from saying ‘we should fund public schools’ to saying, ‘We should fund children and give their parents the ability to choose, to an extent, that education.'”

McCluskey discounted the prospect of public schools losing money under the proposal, noting how school funding in Connecticut and across the country has “skyrocketed” in recent years. The problem, he says, is not a lack of funds but rather that schools don’t lose customers when they fail.

‘Agreement in Principle’
Johnson says no stakeholder group or elected official can endorse a specific reform proposal until they understand how it would affect the distribution of funds.

“I think there’s a long way to go here,” Johnson said. “What we’re seeing now is an agreement in principle on moving in a different direction and incorporating the needs of students in a more explicit fashion in the state’s approach to funding, but there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done on the specifics.”

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.