Public Education and the Regulatory State – Lesley DeNardis

Guest blogger Lesley  DeNardis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Sacred Heart University, a member of the Hamden Board of Education, and a former UNH Professional in Residence in Economics and Public Administration.  She can be contacted at The issues she addresses in this contribution are to be found in greater detail in her forthcoming 2013 book: Who’s Minding the Gap?: Institutions, Ideas, and Interests Shaping Education Policy in Connecticut.  

 Public Education and the Regulatory State

Let’s face it.  Education mandates are not the first words that come to mind when we raise the subject of the regulatory state.  What often springs to mind are burdensome requirements on businesses that impede economic growth.  Rolling back the regulatory state usually calls for some type of deregulation aimed at fostering growth in the private sector.  Yet, education mandates, a stealth form of taxation that fly under the radar, present just as much a threat to economic competiveness and growth for Connecticut.

Connecticut watchers already know that the Constitution state is among the most highly regulated environments for business.  The Tax Foundation ranked Connecticut 40th among states in terms of business tax climate. (  What may have escaped most people’s attention is the fact that education regulations comprise the largest single source of regulation in Connecticut.  An estimated eighty percent of new mandates each legislative session are in the area of public education. These regulations passed down from the state legislature in the form of mandates to local school districts are one of the largest cost drivers for school districts and are arguably just as much a drag on the economy as business regulation.  In fact, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the leading business interest group in Connecticut, identified unfunded education mandates as a looming economic problem in Connecticut.  In a 2006 survey, the CBIA found that among the myriad problems facing municipalities, local officials identified unfunded education mandates as the most problematic.  Unfunded mandates burden local school budgets and contribute to property tax increases creating an overall unfriendly business climate in Connecticut.  Relief from education mandates should be part and parcel of any education reform package.

What should be done?

A little known law passed in 1977 requires the Connecticut state legislature to sunset laws that are deemed obsolete.  The main thrust of the law was to allow legislators to weed out obsolete regulations.  Despite the passage of this law, the CGA has only conducted sunset review once over the last thirty years.  Every five years the legislature decides to postpone sunset review.  The result – thousands of state laws are still on the books which may no longer be necessary and may be unduly burdensome.  Education policy was not included in this original legislation which has been all but ignored by the CGA.  Another route to review has been taken by our neighbors to the south and provides an example of a proactive approach.  The Governors of New York and New Jersey have empanelled commissions to conduct regulatory review of education mandates.   The work of the commission has just been completed and the recommendations are being acted upon by their respective state legislatures.

Some inroads into this problem were made a few years ago when Governor Rell commissioned a panel to study mandate relief.  The work of the commission culminated in proposed legislation “An Act Providing Relief to Municipalities” during the 2009 legislative session which would have required a two thirds vote of the legislature to approve any new mandate and a section dealing with binding arbitration reform.  Unfortunately, the bill did not pass the state legislature.  The Connecticut General Assembly should revive the commission’s recommendations and act favorably upon them.

In addition to periodic reviews of existing regulation, a similar process should be undertaken before any new mandates are proposed.  Legislators ought to ask whether the intended rule or regulation actually addresses the issue at hand.  For example, as part of the education reform package passed by the Connecticut General Assembly in 2010, the state mandated new high school graduation requirements that added 2-3 more courses for a high school student to graduate.  This mandate imposes costs on the school district in the form of hiring additional teachers.  It is of dubious value since it is based on the perception that more courses translate into better prepared or more knowledgeable high school graduates.   The measure drew sharp criticism from local superintendents of schools when they questioned the intrinsic educational merit of more courses and the attendant costs.  There were many such regulations that were part of the heralded 2010 and 2012 education reform packages.  Greater consultation and input from local officials should be solicited to determine whether the goal of a mandate might be better accomplished in another fashion.  While many of these goals may be laudable, they have imposed increased costs on school districts in order to be implemented.    Public input and consultation with local educators and officials would have found a different and perhaps more cost effective path.

Unfunded education mandates have caused school district budgets to skyrocket in recent years.  Tackling these stealth taxes will be one way to foster greater economic competitiveness.  Connecticut should embrace mandate relief a as one part of a multifaceted attempt to address its fiscal woes and become more economically competitive.



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