Connecticut Residents Tune in to Debate about School Funding and Taxes

Published July 1, 2008

More than 1 million households across Connecticut state tuned in to a lively debate over why public school costs keep rising and what can be done to stop the increases, making it clear they’re very concerned about property tax increases.

“Debate ’08–Balancing the Cost of Education with Property Taxes” was broadcast statewide May 15 on The Talk of Connecticut’s four-station radio network and Connecticut Network (CT-N), which provides television and Webcast coverage of Connecticut state government and public policy. The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan education and research organization based in Connecticut, and The Talk of Connecticut radio network sponsored the forum.

Panelists representing a cross-section of Connecticut legislators and town leaders were joined by a national expert on education funding and property taxes.

Waste Reduction, Local Control

“The main point of the debate was how the municipalities are getting saddled with unfunded federal and state mandates,” said Dan Lovallo, radio host on The Talk of Connecticut and a co-moderator of the debate. “What disappointed me during the debate was the call by many municipal leaders for more money from the state to help defray education expenditures at the local level.

“I believe the conversation should center around ways to reduce waste in the budget and how to return more of education to local control, instead of asking for more state assistance,” Lovallo said. “The forum itself was a great idea. People need to understand how their taxes are being spent, and a presentation of this kind helps to illuminate the issue.”

The panel agreed rising energy costs, state and federal unfunded mandates, and binding arbitration for school employees are main challenges to controlling school budgets.

Unfunded Mandates Criticized

While there is little the state can do to control energy costs, unfunded mandates are another matter, panelists said. The legislature enacts mandates without providing funding for compliance, leaving the problem to the towns and cities. The solution usually is to raise property taxes to pay for the mandates.

Barbara Henry, Roxbury’s first selectman, briefly mentioned the effects of rising fuel costs on her town’s school budget, but she laid most of the blame on “unfunded mandates, especially for special education. The unfunded mandates keep coming down. … Until those things get lifted, I don’t see the cost changing.”

House Leader Lawrence Cafero (R-Norwalk) disagreed, saying, “Though there’s no purposeful waste, there [are] efficiencies [to be found].” He shared cost-cutting examples from his own experience on boards of education, such as reducing bloated administrative staffs and overuse of outside contractors.

Barbara Carpenter, president of the West Hartford Education Association, voiced a strong concern regarding burdens the federal “No Child Left Behind” law places on teachers and administrators.

Binding arbitration was cited by most panel members as another source of rising school budgets. Initially designed to prevent teacher strikes, binding arbitration now limits flexibility in negotiating teacher contracts that could lead to greater efficiency, better educational results, and lower costs to taxpayers, many panelists agreed.

Could Save $58 Million

One outside-the-box idea that received some attention was the Yankee Institute’s “Free College for High School Students” proposal, introduced in 2007. It would give high school students who meet their graduation requirements in three years a full community college scholarship. Most panelists said they had trouble envisioning its benefits.

A Yankee Institute study discussing the proposal described how much Connecticut towns could save by paying their students to graduate in three years. Per-pupil costs for high school in Connecticut range from a low of $9,000 in distressed cities such as Bridgeport to nearly $18,000 in wealthier suburbs.

According to the study, if 25 percent of the state’s secondary students received a full community college scholarship (or $5,000 cash equivalent) for finishing high school early, more than $58 million would be left over annually to reduce property taxes.

“While Connecticut taxpayers are spending more than $13,000 per year on every child in public school–well above the national average–many kids continue to slip through the state’s public schools without receiving a quality education,” said panelist Dan Lips, an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

“State and local policymakers need to implement reforms to encourage innovation in our public schools and give children the opportunity to attend an effective school. Across the country, reforms like teacher merit pay and school choice are attracting greater bipartisan support because they are working in the classroom.”

Yankee Institute member Gerald Mayfield of Greenwich was impressed by the broadcast debate. “Although unable to listen to the debate live, I was able to download and listen on my iPod. I was particularly impressed with several aspects of the debate: The wide range of viewpoints and competence of the participants, the ability to keep the level of discussion respectful and on an informative level, the willingness to address difficult and potentially divisive issues, and the moderators’ skills [in] managing the debate,” he said.

Mary F. Crean ([email protected]) is chief development officer at the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.