As school districts across Connecticut decide how to allocate their American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, without the promise of fully funding education, we’re left wondering what will happen once the federal dollars run out.

Daniel Pearson

Last year, the Connecticut appropriations committee approved a need-based formula, aiming to close the $639 million racial funding gap throughout the state. However, as it stands, the benefits won’t reach our highest-needs students for another six years. This continued gap will cause roadblocks in implementation of mental health, social emotional learning and tutoring programs, as well as to create issues with hiring new staff. If there is not enough money to sustain programs or pay salaries for new roles once the ARP funds run out, these resources will once again become inaccessible to students in low-income districts.

The School and State Finance Project reports that “Districts with higher percentages of BIPOC students generally serve students with greater learning needs but spend less per student, while school districts with higher percentages of white students serve students with less learning needs but spend more per student.” This spending disparity results in overcrowded classrooms, a lack of after-school activities and a lack of both learning and mental health resources for students in lower income communities.

According to the CDC, as of 2018, one in five children have experienced a serious mental illness. We know that this number has only increased due to the pandemic, distance learning and constant change. While students across the state will need to prioritize recovery from personal traumas, students in districts with higher percentages of BIPOC students will receive less help and guidance due to this lack of funding.

To ensure all students are supported, districts should hire more educators to decrease class size and increase personalized attention, hire counselors and implement programming to address trauma and behavioral issues and fund after school activities to give students a safe and productive space to study and grow outside of the classroom. But these actions come at a cost, and if these costs cannot be met, student needs will go unaddressed. However, if we close the racial funding gap now, we can use these federal dollars to address structural issues within our districts and work toward classrooms that provide necessary educational enrichment, emotional support and learning opportunities.

Educators say that schools are not regularly meeting the needs of their vulnerable student populations in areas surrounding curricula, staffing and professional support. Fully funding education now and closing the racial funding gap would mean schools could address these issues immediately, without worrying about expiring funds or the inability to compensate staff.

“The spending disparities amongst districts creates an environment for my students in which they are not receiving the education they want or deserve,” said Claudia Tenaglia, a middle school social studies teacher at Dwight-Bellizzi Dual Language Academy in Hartford. “Our classrooms are overcrowded, we don’t have enough staff and our students’ needs are not adequately being met.”

ARP funds are intended for programs to mitigate learning loss, provide mental health support, increase staff and update district technology –all ongoing costs that need upkeep long after the federal funds are exhausted. However, the reality is that traditional yearly school funding is often used for physical repairs on outdated or neglected school buildings. With schools using ongoing funding to address these changes, little will be left over to upkeep the needed programs and new hire salaries after initial implementation costs, leaving fully funding education as our best option to ensure all needs –physical and academic– are addressed.

Even before the pandemic, many of our students were grade levels behind and struggling emotionally, our educators were still overworked and understaffed, and COVID has only exacerbated these issues. Even with the $1.1 billion in funding afforded to Connecticut schools this year, students and teachers may still be unlikely to see significant change without the promise of fully funding education and closing the racial funding gap.

Community members need to continue calling on our legislators to fully fund education by the time the ARP funds expire. All students deserve the opportunity to receive an excellent education, and our educators cannot do it alone.

Daniel Pearson is State Director of Educators for Excellence.