Students at Hartford's Dwight Belizzi Dual Education Academy

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on our education system. Not only did students and teachers have to adapt to online learning virtually overnight, but inequitable access to technology and other resources also meant that the most vulnerable students were the most negatively affected during the challenging 2020-2021 school year. What’s less talked about is the opportunity the pandemic has presented to finally set students on equal footing, so that all students in our state have the opportunity to thrive.

Claudia Tenaglia

The good news is that federal dollars are on the way. More than $1 billion is coming to Connecticut through the American Rescue Plan. This is an unprecedented investment in our schools that will go a long way in addressing students’ interrupted learning over the past year.

But we should be clear about one thing. These federal dollars are temporary, and they won’t solve school funding in our state long term. Inequitable school funding has hurt Connecticut since long before the first positive COVID test in our state.

As crucial as those dollars are in making up for lost time during the pandemic, they won’t solve our state’s education funding challenges on their own. As a 2020 report from the Education Law Center highlights, while Connecticut compares favorably to other states when it comes to average per-pupil spending and the dollars allocated to PK-12 education as a percentage of our state’s economic capacity, earning “A” grades, we receive a failing grade when it comes to ensuring that additional dollars go to the districts serving the poorest students. And it’s not just students living in poverty who our state is failing to invest in. An analysis by the School and State Finance Project found a $639 million funding gap between majority white districts and districts predominantly serving students of color.

As a teacher in Hartford, these findings don’t surprise me, but they are heartbreaking. In wealthier districts, students have access to many technologies and pandemic supports, while in Hartford, we don’t even have enough paper to last the entire year. My students are bright and brimming with potential. It’s time for Connecticut to fund our schools so that every student — not just those in New Canaan and other wealthy districts — has the opportunity to succeed.

In the COVID era, another issue has been exacerbated. Lower-income, under-resourced districts have seen overburdened teaching staff pushed to the point of crisis, further hampering teachers’ (and districts’) ability to meet the needs of our students.

This strain on educators has had other consequences. Under-resourced districts’ ability to attract and retain necessary staff has led to shortages and further erosion of the quality of instruction. Until the inequalities of staffing and resources are fully addressed, lower-income districts will have an increasingly challenging time attracting qualified professionals. This is only going to result in an ever-increasing opportunity gap for our most vulnerable students.

While the American Rescue Plan dollars are intended to help students recover from unfinished learning and from impacts to their social, emotional, and mental health caused by the pandemic, we should focus on solving the root causes that have led the system to fail our most vulnerable students.

Which leads me to more good news: In the last legislative session, several important measures that make education funding in Connecticut more equitable were added to the state budget. These changes direct additional funding to schools serving English language learners and those with a high concentration of students from low-income households.

In short, these measures offer a path to narrow the opportunity gap for Connecticut’s most underprivileged students. Historically, districts with elevated poverty levels and high percentages of English language learners have spent less per pupil. These budget changes reduce that discrepancy by flattening the funding between advantaged and under-advantaged communities. This increase in funding is essential, especially to assist those students who have been without the physical presence of school for much of the pandemic, losing access to critical services like speech therapy, special education services, and hot meals when physically attending school.

While these measures aren’t perfect, and there’s a lot more to do to make school funding in Connecticut more equitable, they are a step in the right direction. Teachers and students alike stand to benefit immensely from fully funding education. Additional funding means more guidance counselors, more paraprofessionals, and smaller class sizes.

But we must continue to fight for budget equity — our students can’t afford to wait any longer to address the history of inequity in our schools. My fellow teachers and I won’t give up until all schools are fully funded, because my students in Hartford and other students across the state deserve to finally receive their fair share.

Claudia Tenaglia is a middle school social studies teacher at Dwight-Bellizzi Dual Language Academy in Hartford. She has more than 15 years of teaching experience around the world. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Hartford Courant on May 31, 2021.

Tenaglia is a panelist in a four-part series, “The Two Connecticuts: Conversations about Race and Place,” that continues with a third session on education on November 10. This special series, co-sponsored by the Connecticut Mirror, will examine how segregation affects people of color — depriving them of personal dignity, economic opportunity, and access to equitable housing and education — yet also disadvantages the state as a whole. Register and find additional information, including recordings of the first two sessions, here.  Attendance is free and the program can be accessed virtually.