Taking a Long View on State Cuts to School $

Last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy issued an audacious idea as his administration struggles to balance a growing state budget with shrinking state dollars. With a budget deadline quickly approaching, Malloy recommended that Connecticut zero out state funds for public schools in 28 of the state’s wealthiest communities.

The Democratically controlled legislature responded to its Democratic governor with the expected retort, not until you pry the state’s checkbook from our cold, dead fingers, as the Hartford Courant reported.

Sure, it is politically unpopular for anyone, particularly a Democratic governor, to suggest cutting public education dollars in any way, shape, or form. But when state law requires a balanced budget and the coffers are much lighter than anyone expects, what are your options? The current budget already reflects significant cuts in higher education, hospitals, social services, and just about every other program Dems hold dear. The dollars have to come from somewhere.

In many ways, Malloy should be (silently) applauded for touching a budget rail few ever want to touch. And at the end of the day, he is right. In the name of shared sacrifice, is it better to cut a few school dollars from the incredibly well resources communities in a largely wealthy state, or to cut all schools? Or to put a finer point on it, better to have Greenwich wait a year before upgrading their tablets or to force Hartford or Bridgeport to eliminate a few science teacher positions in their high schools?

Budget decisions are always easy … until we make it an either or decision. No one ever wants to reduce K-12 spending … until they see the increased tax bill that might come with it. We want all schools to be treated the same … until we see the price tag that goes with equal funding or need-blind budgeting. We all want a fully funded school cost sharing system until we realize it means deeper cuts at the local university or the closing of our neighborhood hospital.

So I’ll say it. The 28 communities Malloy offered for a zeroing out of school funds from the state will not feel the pain. With virtual certainty, I can say that classrooms in those communities will not suffer because of the elimination (if it ever becomes law).

I’ll also say that those same school districts should look at this as a golden opportunity to smartly play the long game. If the state is zeroing your schools out of the budget, negotiate the trade off. Seek reductions in administrative oversight from the state. Lessen the reporting required by the state department of education. Gain new flexibility in terms of how you address state requirements and standards. Obtain the ability to pilot and try new things that the state may ordinarily oppose.

There is a reason states chose not to participate in NCLB and then others chose not to play Race to the Top. They didn’t want the strings attached to the money. Now they have greater flexibility to do things their ways, as long as they meet the overall goals set for K-12 in their state.

It’s the same reason you see many state universities opting for funding beyond the legislature. At my alma mater, the University of Virginia, state dollars represent less than 10% of the total spending on grounds. Schools like U.Va.’s law school, graduate business school, and med school actually take zero dollars from the state just so they can enjoy greater control and increased flexibility.

I get that school districts expect to get a certain number of dollars from the state each year. As a school board chairman in Virginia, I waited with great anticipation to see what the final formula would be from the Virginia General Assembly. But I also saw the volumes and volumes of reports our district had to submit to that same state each year. And I know our district likely would have given up a few state dollars to lessen our reporting burden.

I get that Governor Malloy’s proposal will never make it into the final bill. No legislator wants to go home and say he voted to deny his community school dollars. But perhaps such a proposal should become law. And maybe, just maybe, those affected communities would see they hold great leverage in the deal, and could reshape their relationships with the state moving forward.

In public education, it needs to be about the long game. Is a few hundred thousand dollars today (money that could easily be raised through a community silent auction in many of those towns) worth greater autonomy and reduced administrative burdens for many years to come? Ask a local school superintendent. You might be surprised by the answer when it is made an either or question.

 

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