On March 4, I had the pleasure of attending and testifying at a public hearing for bills raised in the Education Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly. Though I was only present for around five of the more than 12 hours of testimony, I remember thinking “this is democracy at work.” A unique part of our governmental system is the ability to speak directly to legislators, as equals, and to have your voice heard, and for the first time I witnessed this process live, albeit virtually.
Over a month later, I still find myself thinking about one piece of testimony in particular. In reference to H.B. 5283, a student from Bridgeport joined the meeting and discussed his concerns about the lack of funding and the consequent issues that arise from it. This young man explained how in his high school, students who are unable to take school buses must instead take city buses, and feel unsafe traveling to and from school, creating unnecessary stress and concern for students and parents alike.
The funding concerns raised by this student didn’t stop with a lack of transportation to and from school. As he pointed out, the chronic lack of funding certain districts face permeates every part of a student’s experience; from cafeteria staff and teachers to security guards and desperately needed school repairs. Among the countless other testimonies, this young man articulated exactly how education funding disparities hurt Connecticut students every day. He represented a call for help from students across Connecticut to our state legislators.
These constant pressures have tangible consequences on students and student outcomes. In recent years, students eligible for free and reduced school lunch (who are often less well-off) have had a substantially lower graduation rate. For example, in 2018-19, students eligible for free lunch had a graduation rate 17.2% lower than students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch. Students who qualified for reduced lunch fared better, yet still had graduation rates 6% lower than those who were not eligible for free or reduced lunch. This disparity, evidenced by something as simple as having the financial ability to pay for school lunch, highlights the need for greater investment in low-income school districts.
In the past, legislators have tried to alleviate some of the problems created by education funding disparities with the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant. The formula underlying this grant target includes increased funding for low-income students and English language learners. In principle, this should improve inequity in education. In practice, this is not the case. Though the current ECS formula aims to alleviate funding disparities, the state has not fulfilled the funding targets calculated in the ECS formula. Instead, districts are only required to fulfill 1% of the ECS requirements for the majority of school districts and 10% for Alliance districts (the 33 lowest-performing school districts).
In the status quo, this has resulted in certain districts receiving as little as 30% of the ECS target amounts. While the potential impact of the ECS grant could alleviate the funding disparity created by funding education largely through property taxes, which account for 58% of funding in the state, the ECS requirement is often under-met, wasting that potential.
However, new legislation introduced this year could provide a long-sought solution to struggling Connecticut school districts. H.B. 5283 would, among other things, entitle Alliance districts to the full amount of their base grant, and entitle other districts to 95% of their base grant. This crucial step to alleviating education disparities in the state should not be ignored. Education has the power to change lives and build communities.
Research shows that for every $1 invested into low-income students’ education, the eventual earnings for those students will increase by over $1. With H.B. 5283, Connecticut legislators have the opportunity to make long-term investments in students and communities, all of which will be paid back with interest.
Dylan Council is a member of the Yale College Democrats.