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Test Scores Tied To State Aid in Connecticut Plan

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Connecticut would become the first state to allot general aid to school districts partly on the basis of deficiencies in student test scores, under a plan approved last week by a committee appointed by the state legislature.

The plan, designed to target a bigger share of state money to districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students, will be considered by the state board of education next month before it is submitted to the legislature for approval.

"This will be a powerful tool in driving money where we have the greatest need," said Commissioner of Education Gerald N. Tirozzi, who served on the 19-member panel charged with rethinking Connecticut's school-finance formula.

Among other provisions aimed at promoting greater equity in funding, the proposal would require the state to factor into each district's aid allotment the number of district students scoring at the remedial level on the state's mastery-learning tests.

"If a population of children has not reached mastery level, they need whatever it takes--smaller class sizes, more equipment," said another panel member, State Representative Naomi Cohen.

The formula change would help ensure that "services provided children in poor areas give them the same chances as children in wealthier areas," said Ms. Cohen, who is House chairman of the legislature's joint committee on education.

According to Chris Pipho, director of clearinghouse information for the Education Commission of the States, "nobody has put general finance aid into the mode" being contemplated in Connecticut.

Other states, such as Florida and Indiana, peg remedial aid to student-achievement levels, he said, while California briefly provided bonuses to individual schools whose pupils performed well on tests.

Connecticut's Educational Equity Study Committee, which has been monitoring disparities in state education funding over the past 10 years, was instructed by the legislature 18 months ago to create a new finance formula to take effect in the 1989-90 fiscal year.

The formula is intended to combine general state aid with aid from the 1986 Education Enhancement Act, which provides funds to enable districts to raise teacher salaries, after the act expires in 1989.

Also guiding the panel's deliberations was a 1977 court order requiring the state to provide equal educational opportunities for students in poorer communities.

In addition to linking aid to deficiencies in student achievement, the committee's plan would set a minimum foundation level of per-pupil spending. And it would raise the state's share of districts' education spending to 50 percent--up from its current 43 percent--to help poorer districts reach the foundation level.

In its final session last week, the committee agreed to set the foundation level at about $4,800 per pupil in the 1992-93 school year, the anticipated first year of full implementation, or about 80 percent of what the highest-spending district is expected to spend next year.

Districts would receive state funds to enable them to spend at least the foundation level for each "need pupil."

The number of such pupils would be calculated by taking a district's total enrollment, then adding 25 percent of the number of its pupils in the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and 25 percent of its pupils scoring at the remediation level on statewide tests.

Scores from the tests, which are taken by all students in grades 4, 6, and 8, would be averaged over three years to minimize any "rollercoaster effect," according to Thomas P. Mondani, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association and a member of the finance panel.

The amount of state aid a district would receive would depend on its financial need, as determined by its amount of property value per "need pupil."

Forty-nine wealthy towns that would not meet the level of need established under the formula would continue to receive the same amounts they are currently eligible for, plus an additional 1 percent each year.

The committee's proposal would require $1.12 billion in aid to districts in 1992-93, a $354-million increase over Commissioner Tirozzi's request for fiscal 1989. The committee agreed to phase in the plan over four years and to provide an additional $88 million in state aid each year.

Several members of the panel argued that the committee's funding proposal was insufficient to eliminate the disparities between8wealthy and poor districts, and they unsuccessfully proposed an alternative that would raise state aid to $1.7 billion a year.

"The committee arrived at its decision based on the finances of the state, not based on whether their proposal would achieve equity," argued John F. Mannix, a member of the state board and one of five committee members who voted against the final plan.

"That was not the statutory charge of the committee," he said. "That's the job of the appropriations committee and the Governor."

"On top of that," he continued, "the amount of money they are putting in the foundation is below what is necessary to achieve equity."

But other members of the committee defended the proposal as politically realistic.

"This is a responsible bottom line," said State Senator Kevin B. Sullivan, Senate chairman of the legislature's education committee. "I don't think [a higher funding level] is responsible at a time when there are other state demands on revenues."

Mr. Sullivan said he voted against the plan, however, because he objected to the provision that would measure a district's property wealth on a per-pupil basis, rather than per capita, as is now the case.

Such a shift, he said, would effectively reduce state aid to 62 towns, chiefly suburbs with large numbers of older residents.

Mr. Sullivan said he would seek a compromise on that provision in the legislature if, as expected, the state board submits the plan for consideration.

Although the plan's basic structure will probably remain intact, added Representative Cohen, amendments to it are likely.

"This is step one," she said. "It's a good step. But it's far from the final decision. There are a lot more players before it becomes final."

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