Connecticut education funding bill fails, but advocates vow to bring it back in 2023
A bill that would have enhanced state funding for all types of public elementary and secondary schools bogged down this spring amid fears that it would force primary education and early childhood development programs to compete for the same dollars.
But leaders of the General Assembly’s Education and Appropriations Committee said the measure will be reconsidered in 2023, as it is crucial to correct funding inequities facing magnet, charter and vocational-agricultural schools.
“There were a lot of huge, big-ticket items that had to be negotiated” in the regular 2022 session that adjourned May 4, said Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, the education panel’s co-chair. “I think there’s a lot of interest in approaching this again.”
At issue was a bill that would accelerate a 10-year plan crafted in 2017 to bolster the Education Cost Sharing program, the state’s major operating grant for local school districts. It also redistributed aid gradually, shifting resources from wealthier communities to poorer ones.
But while that 2017 effort was focused more on aid for traditional schools, this bill — some education advocates say — was fixing an oversight, updating formulas for all types of public schools. And many magnets and charters serve students in some of the state’s poorest communities.
The bill died on the House calendar because it was uncertain whether either had support to pass in the Senate, sources said.
McCrory noted that the new $24.2 billion state budget adopted for the fiscal year that begins July 1 invests more than $100 million in a child care and early childhood development industry that has been decimated by the pandemic.
And while many in the Democratic-controlled legislature said the state could afford this investment and more in traditional legislation, given the unprecedented $4.8 billion surplus the state amassed this fiscal year, Gov. Ned Lamont urged caution. The state is relying on about $3 billion in emergency pandemic federal relief to help prop up its finances through the 2024-25 fiscal year and must be ready to function without it after that, he said.
The legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee had recommended scrapping one of two programs designed to help produce large budget surpluses so the funds could be repurposed to support child care in a few years when the federal aid has been exhausted.
But Lamont opposed that move, arguing the state would be better served holding off for now, and reassessing its finances when the regular 2023 legislative session starts in January.
“We look forward to a robust discussion during next year’s legislative session to make the right investments in our students and schools,” said Chris Collibee, spokesman for the governor’s budget office.
Collibee also noted that in addition to the extra funding for child care, the new budget also includes almost $47 million for school desegregation initiatives, special education, charter schools and bilingual education programs.
And another $97 million in federal pandemic relief was committed to expand free school meal programs, $30 million to provide additional free meals in schools, magnet schools and mental health services for students.
Still, education advocates say one year’s investments alone cannot correct longstanding obstacles facing many schools, and sustained, long-term funding is needed to fix that. That means adjusting aid formulas and then adhering to them.
“Time and time again, research has shown that additional education funding is an investment that improves student outcomes, results in higher graduation rates, increases access to higher education, reduces poverty, increases earnings for life, and improves the state’s economy,” said Lisa Hammersley, executive director of the School and State Finance Project, a Hartford-based education policy think-tank. “It’s time we invest in Connecticut’s future, and that starts by fully funding our students and providing our schools and communities with the resources, stability and predictability they need to thrive.”
“Connecticut has the largest opportunity gap in the country, and a lot of that has to do with how we fund education,” said Subira Gordon, executive director at ConnCAN, a nonprofit that advocates for education access in Connecticut.
“When are we going to say to kids in Hartford, kids in Bridgeport, kids in New Haven that we believe in you?” Gordon added.
“Stop short-changing Black and brown children who have been asked to wait for their turn that never comes,” said Jamiliah Prince-Stewart, executive director of FaithActs for Education, a Bridgeport-based coalition of churches seeking education reform.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee and a strong advocate for the education funding bill, said she believes the state can afford to commit these dollars now and expand support for child care.
“I would have voted for it,” said Osten, D-Sprague, who nonetheless conceded that its fate in the Senate this year was uncertain.
But Osten also predicted that support — both among legislators and among grassroots advocates for education — only will grow over the next year as people see the heavy toll the coronavirus took on local education.
Investing in early childhood development is crucial, she said, but Connecticut also must remember a generation of children beyond the toddler stage who had their education interrupted over the past two years and need help soon.
“Do we ignore that whole generation to fix that problem?” Osten added. “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”