Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, center, speaks before a public hearing on an education funding bill. Jessika Harkay / CT Mirror

Nearly 200 community members were scheduled to testify before lawmakers Friday, taking advantage of the first chance to comment on a bill that could change how Connecticut school districts are funded.

The hearing on House Bill 5003, which proposes a change in funding for magnet schools, charter schools and regional agricultural science and technology education centers and would change the state’s Education Cost Sharing model, was expected to last well into the evening.

“We need to maintain this funding, because a one-time payment does not make structural change,” said Speaker of the House, Rep. Matt Ritter. “Structural change will come from year over year, decade over decade, of equitable funding.”

In 2017, the state of Connecticut approved a bipartisan plan to bolster the ECS program and its distribution of around $2 billion in education funding to districts through a phase-in process over the course of 10 years. Implementation was delayed for two years.

HB-5003 proposes another acceleration of payments of $275 million by 2025 (instead of by 2028), to help better equip school districts for when COVID-19 relief funds expire. The money would be directed to districts where more students come from low-income families and where districts can’t afford to help pay for the extra support these students would need.

HB-5003 would:

  • Weight school funding based on student need;
  • Get rid of tuition at inter-district magnet schools and regional agricultural science and technology education centers;
  • Change the formula used to fund individual towns and fully fund areas that were previously underfunded;
  • Increase spending accountability by increasing money distribution to student achievement, teacher recruitment and retainment and work toward engaging the community in local education.

Several students said receiving more education funding will open more opportunities for them, including more classes that could tailor to their interests and keep them engaged.

One of those students was Giovanni Arcos, who was about to enter high school when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic hurt his grades, which in turn made him disengage from his studies and be held back a year. 

“When that happened, I was destined to fail,” Arcos testified.

He soon transferred to Impact Academy, a Hartford-based magnet school that focuses on positive youth development. 

He’s now a high school junior and says he’s been given a “sense of curiosity and yearning for more knowledge.”

“This magnet school has offered me a second chance, and with that, I have learned to appreciate what I am given with my learning experience, especially since it has been enhanced by this magnet school,” Arcos said. “Now, thanks to Impact Academy, which relies on the state’s funds, I’m mostly caught up, and I am on track to graduate next year. Please support this bill.”

Other students argued that beyond engaging students again, the bill could help eliminate barriers and open new doors to higher education.

“Our school prides itself in the ability to provide an independent learning environment, in which you can earn college credits while attending high school — enriching our curriculum and allowing students to push themselves to their full potential — something that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish in a traditional school setting,” said Claire Bonafine, a student at Quinnipiac Middle College. “I would like this opportunity to be continued to expand to more students.”

Bonafine and Arcos were joined by several other students, superintendents and local officials, including New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker and Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, in early testimony in favor of the bill. Most written testimony on the General Assembly website overwhelmingly supported HB-5003, with only one opposition.

“It is madness to continue to [pour] money into failing public schools, and it is unfair to not allow parents the opportunity to improve their children’s education by sending them to better schools,” David Holman, who only identified himself as a “taxpayer,” wrote in his opposing testimony

Shellye Davis, a paraprofessional at Hartford Public Schools, also argued that the bill leaves some unanswered measures. 

“This level of investment could finally mean that we are on our way to providing the same quality education to a child in Bridgeport, Hartford or New Haven as we do for students in Westport, Greenwich or Derby, which is very exciting,” Davis said. “[But] first, there is a foundational question that remains to be addressed. What does it actually cost to properly educate a child in Connecticut? By basing HB-5003 on an existing formula that stakeholders acknowledge is calculating the base amount, that does not take this key question into account. We are missing an important opportunity to get this right. Second, HB-5003 lacks protections to ensure the increasing funding will actually reach classrooms.”

Prior to the joint public hearing, state representatives and community advocates gathered in support of the bill while also calling for a $275 million investment in Connecticut public schools.

Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, recalled his time as a public school student in his home district. He said some campuses had no cafeterias, no gymnasiums and rundown bathrooms that were missing windows.

“And this year, I went to our North End and campaigned with one of our colleagues for their primary, and we visited one of those schools. It looked the same as it did about 20 years ago,” Felipe said, adding that the story is entirely different in more affluent communities like Fairfield.

“They have amenities that have been built: state of the art gymnasiums, state of the art lunchrooms, state of the art [sports] fields. We’ve had the same for 20 years,” Felipe continued. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Fairfield students do not deserve these things. They deserve all of these things and more. But, as a young Latino from the city of Bridgeport, so did I.”

Lawmakers are hopeful that, if the bill passes, they’ll be able to sustain Connecticut schools for longer than the near future.

“I know there are some … who believe that we have this infusion of money from the feds that are simply going to take care of all of the problems in our classrooms right now, but that is a one-time infusion of money, and there’s a very difficult conversation that is on the horizon when that money goes away,” said Education Committee Co-Chair Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford. “And what we’re doing with House Bill 5003 is addressing that today and taking proactive steps to ensure that districts are able to make the right decisions that they need to support their students.”

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.