This year in Connecticut, voters decisively chose Democrats to lead in Hartford because they recognized that we are the party that will move our state forward. Many races this fall were won on “progressive” values, and “progress” is rooted in change.
The new Lamont administration is taking shape and preparing to govern, and the General Assembly is heading back to work in Hartford with strong Democratic majorities in both houses. These Democrats must answer the call of voters when it comes to change for Connecticut’s students. Social safety net priorities like health care, affordable housing, and civil rights have always been at the core of what Democrats stand for and have sought to improve. Opportunity through education must be on this list as well.
In recent years, we have seen many Democrats unapologetically stand up for fairness and high standards in every school and for every student. We count President Obama and Senator Chris Murphy among our most outspoken leaders on educational opportunity for all. Through their work, they have shown that it is not enough to just spend more money, but that new ideas are needed to address what isn’t working.
As true progressives, they have sought systemic change. We show our values as a party through solutions like equitable education funding for all public school students, increasing diversity in the teaching profession, rejecting the bigotry of low expectations for students of color, and raising standards for all schools.
In 2017, we adopted a state budget with a new and improved school funding formula. It provided more resources for students that live in poverty and for English learners. It was also based on actual enrollment numbers and needs, not just a brokered political giveaway. But it was only a start. Most school districts in Connecticut are still struggling under the weight of special education costs. With uneven, unfair, and unpredictable resource distribution, the system is in need of significant change. If we, as Democrats, have a tradition of always looking out for the most vulnerable among us, then this statewide crisis must be at the top of our lists to address in 2019.
Likewise, Democrats should agree on a policy platform designed to address systemic discrimination and bias in our schools. It’s true that Connecticut continues to be racially and economically segregated by town and city, but we can start to address institutional biases inside our classrooms.
Last session, with the progressive leadership of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, the General Assembly passed a bill to improve minority teacher recruitment. Sen. Douglas McCrory said upon the bill’s passage, “When students of all races see teachers of color in front of the classroom, it helps to challenge implicit biases and improve their educational experience.” Let’s expand those efforts through policies like enhancing culturally relevant curriculum, professional training opportunities on bias, and incentivizing retention of teachers of color.
Gov.-elect Lamont has spoken frequently of the need to compete in a new economy and provide career pathways in technology and business for Connecticut students. But those goals cannot be achieved until we first address the stubborn education achievement crisis in Connecticut, made clear with the latest statewide testing of all third through eighth grade students. Only 46.8 percent meet or exceed expectations in grade-level mathematics, only 55.3 percent in English. That is not a localized problem; that is a failure in suburbs and cities alike that can be addressed with more teacher preparation and development, increased district and school accountability, and resources to incentivize effective teachers.
Democrats and Progressives, we must get to work on the reforms that make real change for children. As a party, we never rest when it comes to social safety net issues that aim to protect children and families. Let’s not repeat in our schools what has proven unsuccessful in the past in the name of “progressive values.”
If over half of Connecticut students are not meeting grade-level expectations, the true progressive path for elected leaders is to rise to the challenge of making meaningful change, especially for those most in need. I know it can be Democrats who uphold our values and lead the way.
Amy Dowell is the Connecticut State Director for Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that supports elected Democrats and candidates who are champions of public education.