Senate Democrats Bob Duff, Derek Slap, Martin Looney, Doug McCrory and Julie Kushner at a January press conference calling for more scrutiny of K-12 school finances. Jessika Harkay / CT Mirror

Senate Democratic leaders plan to put school spending under closer scrutiny and reassess how the state’s major vehicle for school funding is calculated, lawmakers said Tuesday.

And beyond wanting more transparency, some senators said they also want to ensure that Connecticut’s investments in K-12 education are properly equipping students for success in the workplace and in college.

“[Employers] come to Connecticut because we have the most highly educated workforce in the nation and the most productive workforce in the nation,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said at a press conference Tuesday morning. “That could change if we don’t have the people who are prepared and ready for the workforce.”

One of the state senate’s first priorities is outlined in the title of Senate Bill 1, “an act concerning transparency in education.” 

The legislators said that although schools are required to report their spending to the Connecticut Department of Education, the categories often lack detail, which “makes it difficult to compare the spending practices of school districts, even if they are similarly sized,” according to a press release from the Senate Democrats.

“Additionally, the general reporting categories allow school districts to have different interpretations of what information is expected of them to be shared,” the release states.

Education Committee Co-Chair Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said Connecticut’s towns and cities spent over $9 billion on education last year, and he believes “residents would like to see a greater return on their investment.”

“We want to know where our dollars are being spent besides just teacher salaries. There’s a lot more resources our children need to be successful,” McCrory said. “We’re going to do a deeper dive and look at how we are spending that $9 billion across the state of Connecticut, that’s the first thing.”

McCrory said the state needs to have better conversations with school districts about how money is being distributed and whether it’s going to the right places.

“Why should we continue to give [schools] more money [if they’re not the best steward]?” McCrory said, adding that better dialogue between the state and local schools encourage districts to better invest in special education and expand after-school opportunities, clinics for mental health and teacher salaries. 

McCrory also supported changing the Education Cost Sharing model, which determines how money is split among school districts.

“Whether you go to tech school, a magnet school, a traditional public school, a charter school — why do we have so many different ways of funding? That should be one funding mechanism coming from the state of Connecticut, and that’s how we should move forward. Make it very simple and clear,” McCrory said.

“Some school districts are teaching financial literacy so their kids can understand generational wealth and things like that. But some school districts don’t know anything about that, right? That’s what we have. That’s the balance we have in the state of Connecticut,” McCrory argued. “It starts in education and continues into higher education, then it goes into employment. … We need to make sure we have kids in our schools who can do these jobs. All the kids. The reality is that in the state of Connecticut, almost 40% of the kids are students of color, and right now, currently, we’re not properly educating them.”

Alongside evaluating transparency in educational funding, the senate plans to prioritize addressing a statewide teaching shortage by retaining its current educators but also expanding the field to more diverse candidates. 

Part of the conversation of creating a more diverse workforce, especially in education, trickles down into higher education access. 

In Senate Bill 8, lawmakers are looking for ways to provide “increased financial support for our state colleges and universities to enhance ongoing services on campus for all students and to improve the state’s efforts in the retention of graduates from the state’s institutions of higher education.”

The bill will address the cost of higher education, including expanding a state program that offers some students free community college, improving scholarship opportunities and devoting more resources toward student needs.

“If you look at the percent of our budget that we spend on higher education, we spent a paltry, about 2%, actually on supporting our students with grants and with scholarships,” said Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford. “That puts us at 45th in the country, so … only five states spend less of a percentage of their higher education budget on supporting students with grants and scholarships.”

The legislators said they hope to expand the state’s PACT program, which currently provides free community college to students who are Connecticut high school graduates, first-time college attendees and who submit a completed FAFSA. 

The program could be expanded to paying for returning college students and for those attending the state’s four-year universities. 

Earlier this year, the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities released a proposal asking for funding increases of $54.3 and $127.8 million in the next two years and additional support through 2030. The proposal also seeks to expand the PACT program.

“I’m heartened to see that the Board of Regents … just came out with their proposal — a lot of it is similar to ours. I’m glad that we’re thinking in a similar fashion,” Slap said. “What we really want to avoid is declining enrollments, and increased tuition, because that can create a death spiral for our public schools and universities.”

In addition to efforts to expand PACT, which would “not only to help students start [college], but [also] help students finish and that’ll get them into the workforce,” Slap said lawmakers are also hopeful of allocating more money into the Roberta Willis Scholarship Program to get more Connecticut students in the doors of higher education institutions. 

“We identified [that] there’s some bottlenecks, so not all the resources are getting to students,” Slap said. “We also want to ensure that all first-year students have access to the Roberta Willis Scholarship Program, because … when it comes time for the schools to recruit these students, we want them to have those resources right at the beginning.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.