'These are our children, these are their lives': Lamont's education funding plans under fire

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director for the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, shown here in Bridgeport, Conn. on Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director for the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, shown here in Bridgeport, Conn. on Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

As Gov. Ned Lamont rolls out his budget proposals for the coming biennium, education funding seems poised to become a battleground.

Lamont wants to freeze the state’s contribution to public schools, the pot of money called Education Cost Sharing, or ECS. Instead, he would boost districts by using federal coronavirus funds. And that’s raising alarm among educators and advocates.

As districts continue to grapple with the devastating effects of the pandemic on both school costs and student learning, Fran Rabinowitz worries about Lamont’s plan. She represents Connecticut’s public school superintendents.

“I’m concerned about the domino effect of holding it off for two years,” Rabinowitz told Connecticut Public Radio. Essentially, she says, filling that hole with federal funds robs Peter to pay Paul. The coronavirus money could have been used for child reading programs or to support students with disabilities during the summer.

“That federal funding was meant to supplement, not supplant,” she said. “It was meant for us to move forward and put in the type of acceleration that our children are going to need.”

The Lamont administration doesn’t see it that way. Melissa McCaw, the governor’s budget chief, says that because the state hasn’t recovered more than half a billion dollars in revenue lost to the pandemic, pulling in federal relief money represented the best path forward.

“We have to use the resources that we have, which is significant funding coming from the feds, as the governor recommends, to meet the commitment that we made to the districts in the ECS formula,” she said, adding that more state money may be forthcoming in the next biennium budget.

As far as helping kids who’ve been learning remotely to reduce the spread of COVID-19, McCaw says the state will require districts to identify which students have taken a step back in their education — and then develop a program to get them caught up.

That’s where Republican House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora thinks the state misses the boat.

“What I was hoping to see in this budget is specifics on what programs we’re going to put forth throughout the summertime to catch all these children up — and I don’t see that,” he said.

He’s concerned about students who have become disengaged, saying that some estimates put the number as high as 16,000 kids.

Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, also worries about how to connect funding to kids who are off the grid.

“We have to make sure we are leaving no children behind — I don’t mean punishing folks,” Samuel said. “Find out why they’re not back in school. Is it the community? Are there towers for internet? Does the family have instability issues?”

She says a funding freeze on the state level makes that effort much harder.

The state had a 3 percent decline in enrollment at the start of this school year compared to last. A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that continues a trend the state has seen over the last five years.

Rabinowitz believes an even bigger problem may loom. She’s been racking her brain since the proposal came out: Even if the federal money does what the state intends, what happens when it runs out, specifically to urban school districts?

“Some of the most challenged districts, for example Waterbury, if they are flat-funded, it will be a loss of $20 million.”

Rabinowitz says a freeze in the ECS helps suburban districts, many of which would lose money if the formula changed.

‘Broken Promises’

McCaw faced questions about the budget from the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee. Rep. Brandon McGee (D-Hartford, Windsor) said he had a philosophical difference with McCaw over the focus of state education funding.

“The formula is in fact what drives how we fund our districts and that’s what we’ve been given to deal with,” McGee said on a Zoom call with McCaw.

Like Rabinowitz, McGee said he doesn’t believe the ECS formula benefits students from Connecticut’s neediest school districts. So, he’s proposed a new bill before the legislature that aims to address the achievement gap for students of color who live in these communities.

Earlier last week, McGee appeared at a press conference in Hartford and called on Gov. Ned Lamont to act in revamping the ECS formula.

“We talk about evening the playing field but (we are) veering away from what is right because of politics. And for me that starts with a real conversation about equity … Until that is done, we have simply given our children lip service, something they can always see through,” he said.

The ECS formula was implemented to distribute $2 billion to public schools across the state. McGee and others who joined him at the news conference don’t believe the money’s being distributed equitably.

“I refuse to raise my unborn child in a state that does not value her education,” said Jamilah Price-Stewart, Executive Director FaithActs for Education. “Yet our discomfort today pales in comparison to the sacrifices our families and communities have made for generations — to live in a state that would rather spend more to incarcerate us.”

Parents at the news conference voiced their disappointment with socioeconomic divides in their towns.

“(My child) Is Hispanic, (has) special needs and lives in Bridgeport. (Those are) the three factors (that are) up against my son for achieving success in his life.” said Stephanie Nieves, a parent leader.

Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, expressed support of McGee’s bill and said he intends to help students and parents achieve success within their school districts.

“I want to make a promise today — to look out for everyone. An agenda that looks out for English language learners, to provide for special (education) students,” he said. “An agenda that recognizes all children regardless of their skin color, zip code or the size of the family bank account. I want to promise that we legislate (with) the interest of the students and parents.”

Ultimately, parents at the press conference said they don’t want any more broken promises. They want to see change within their communities and the proper aid given to support their child’s success.

“These are our children, these are their lives,” Nieves said.