Clergy from Connecticut’s three largest cities reminded Gov. Ned Lamont this week that he needs their support to win re-election, and they challenged him to earn it by tackling the “racist and classist” way the state funds the struggling, segregated schools in their neighborhoods.
If not the first public overture to the governor by a Democratic constituency group about the 2022 campaign, the clergy’s 40-minute online talk with the governor on Tuesday was the bluntest. They kicked off the talk with some political math: The 55,000 votes cast for Lamont from their communities exceeded his 44,000-vote margin of victory.
Religious leaders with Faith Acts for Education told the Democratic governor their congregations were with him in 2018, and they expect to see action on their key concern — inequities in public education that affect urban school systems.
“You came to many of our churches. You stood at our pulpits. You promised us in front of God that you would do right by our people. We believe that you will,” said the Rev. William McCullough, a Bridgeport pastor and founder of Faith Acts.
McCullough, who is the senior pastor of Russell Temple CME Church, gave the governor a succinct summary of the agenda: “The goal of this is to compel you to take action to remedy the significant inequities in educational funding statewide that disproportionately impact Black, Latino and low-income students.”
Democrats expect Lamont, a 66-year-old Greenwich businessman nearing the mid-point of his first term, to seek a second term in 2022. The governor has worked in recent months on outreach and to constituency groups, but he has avoided public discussion of the 2022 campaign.
McCullough and other religious leaders contrasted urban schools with those of Greenwich.
“Let us compare our hometowns. Greenwich serves less than half the number of students as New Haven. Yet if New Haven were to be funded educationally like Greenwich does, we would spend $120 million more per year,” said Rev. Theodore Brooks of Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church in New Haven.
He was referring to the $23,220 Greenwich spent per student last year compared to the $18,142 spent on each student in New Haven. “Yes or no,” he asked. “During the 2021 legislative session, will you fulfill your commitment to racial injustice by proposing and signing a budget into law that equitably funds, Black and Latino and low-income students in all public schools?”
Despite his office being provided the questions ahead of the meeting, Lamont didn’t directly answer.
“I hope I am doing that,” he said, before pivoting immediately to his administration’s response to schools closing during the pandemic.
“Let me say you hit pretty hard on New Haven and Greenwich and the incredible contrast there. I’ll tell you one other contrast: the schools in the suburbs stayed open. The schools in New Haven never opened and that broke my heart that those kids in New Haven — overwhelmingly Black and brown [students] — have not had the opportunity to go to a classroom to be with the teacher, to be with their friends, to learn in person, for I think eight months at this point, and that’s one of the worst in equities I can see.”
Lamont decided months ago that his administration would not order districts to reopen, instead leaving it up to local school boards to decide.
Faith Acts signaled an intention to make school inequities a key issue in the upcoming legislative session, where the governor will recommend a two-year budget that will carry the state into the 2022 election cycle.
These faith leaders are asking Lamont to resolve a longstanding, seemingly intractable problem that neither the courts or previous legislatures have been willing or able to fix.
The most recent attempt was in 2017, when lawmakers from both parties overhauled how the state funds schools in the wake of a scathing Superior Court ruling criticizing the state’s approach and as they awaited the Connecticut Supreme Court to decide whether the state’s funding formula is constitutional. If followed, the new funding formula would steadily increase the amount the state spends each year on education over the next seven years. That’s an additional $350 million a year by 2028, with the bulk going to the state’s most financially distressed districts.
Next year, that formula requires the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont to spend an additional $38.9 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and another $40 million a year for each of the next six years. The 10 lowest-performing school districts in the state would get 61% of the additional aid despite those districts enrolling 20% of all K-12 public students in Connecticut. Bridgeport stands to get $2.3 million more, Hartford $3.2 million, and New Haven $2.4 million.
But fully funding the formula will be challenging because lawmakers now must close a state budget deficit topping $2 billion in the next fiscal year. The legislature also has a long history of adopting lofty funding formulas with promises to finance them in the future and then dialing back when deficits loom. For example, the formula adopted in 2017 delayed funding increases because the state faced budget deficits. The Connecticut Supreme Court also later ruled that the state’s old funding formula is constitutional, removing some of the pressure on lawmakers to address the inequities.
Left out of the negotiations for the bipartisan 2017 budget, then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy expressed frustration with the slow rollout in education aid and worried future legislators and governors would delay the scheduled increases.
“Will it take years to ramp up to have any meaningful difference in the lives of students who started kindergarten this year? If it takes 10 years to get equity, that’s pretty late in someone’s career having started school this year to wait to get equity in their situations,” Malloy said on the day the compromise was reached.
The clergy on Tuesday’s panel expressed similar outrage with the state’s slow pace on achieving equity. By their math, the state should be spending an additional $630 million this year to level the playing field for their districts. That means that even the increases slated in the new school funding formula aren’t enough.
“I don’t feel like we’re doing all we can do for our most vulnerable kids. I just feel like you could do so much more. I tell you, they can say a lot of things about Gov. Malloy, but he was a champion for education — he was a champion for education — and so I’d like to see us get on the same page to make sure that our most vulnerable kids, kids you know who are disenfranchised and who [are not] able to, you know, get the steps that they need to come up with kids in Greenwich,” McCullough told Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich businessman before he was elected governor. “We need a stronger commitment from you as an elected leader to equitably fund black, Latino and low-income students at all public schools for the 2021 legislative session.”
Ronald Holmes, a pastor of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in Bloomfield, told the governor that his parishioners from Hartford suffer from an opportunity gap that the children in Greenwich don’t. Hartford spends $2,884 less per student than Greenwich, despite the demonstrably greater need among students in Hartford.
These disparities exist, he pointed out, despite landmark state and national school segregation rulings.
“Schools are more separate and more unequal than they ever were before. There appear to be two Connecticuts: one where children are set up to thrive and another where children are destined to fail. Hartford, where many of my parishioners reside, the average income is $20,000, and your hometown of Greenwich, the average income is $100,000. Connecticut has one of the largest wealth and opportunity gaps in the country, and we’re calling on your leadership to fix it,” he said.
Lamont told his audience that the pandemic has gotten in the way of making more progress.
“I wanted to be the education governor. I realized when I took office almost two years ago that … we have the quality of our people and the quality of our education system, and that’s our greatest strength,” he said. “I really felt that this was an opportunity for every single kid to get … a fresh start at the starting line of life, and I thought a lot of Black and brown kids are getting left behind. That’s what I made my commitment in terms of education. And then, you know, I was the governor that sadly a year and a bit later we had to close down the schools, and you can hear my passion now about getting those schools open and making sure those kids have the opportunity to continue. That’s my number one.”
The faith leaders and their parishioners, however, weren’t focused on COVID. They wanted to know if the governor has any long-term solutions in mind.
“We know that times are challenging. The fact is the pandemic has made an already oppressive education system even more oppressive,” said Brooks of New Haven. “Connecticut’s schools funding system was infected long before the coronavirus arrived, causing an education pandemic in the form of inequitable funding.”
A teacher from Central High School Bridgeport — Bria Parkman-McCullough — explained what funding shortfalls meant for one of her freshman students, who was reading at a sixth grade level four years ago. He relied on old text books and an online literacy program that was discontinued mid-year as the district faced budget shortfalls. Now a 12th-grade teacher, Parkman-McCullough has him again in her class — and he remains far behind.
“I often question how the student’s academic experience would be different right now if the district was able to purchase and keep that program. Unfortunately, this question will never be answered, because my district literally cannot afford to answer it,” said Parkman-McCullough. “Because these communities have been underfunded and underserved for generations. The impact of these disparities are magnified in times of crisis. This crisis magnifies problems of old because of inequitable funding. ”
Despite being asked repeatedly during the call, Lamont did not commit to overhauling how schools are funded or to allocating the $40 million slated increase to the school funding formula.
His spokesman later told the CT Mirror that while it remains a goal to fund the scheduled increased to the Education Cost Sharing formula, the administration is not yet in a position to commit to taking that step.
“The continued phasing-in to full funding in ECS is under review as part of the ongoing budget process. The Governor’s budget is due in February and we are evaluating how to mitigate a budget deficit north of $2 billion with only 33% of our pre-pandemic revenues recovered,” said Max Reiss. “We continue to pursue federal funding to provide education relief funding in addition to the $267 million in new funding [this year to respond to the pandemic] that we have already invested to support our schools, students, and educational reopening.”
Meanwhile, the leader of Faith Acts ended the conversation by telling Lamont that religious leaders are ready to help his administration gather support if he decides to take on school inequities.
“I know you’re busy, but we can help you,” said Rev. McCullough.