Kindergarten students at the New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport observe caterpillars. NBFA photo

Public education in Connecticut has two very different faces. That’s because the state continues to perpetuate one of the largest opportunity gaps due to an outdated funding model that discriminates based on zip code, race and economic status.

Our state is one of the wealthiest in the country, yet a $713 million statewide funding gap disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable students and perpetuates an inequitable public education system. 

Ronelle Swagerty

For years we have been told that there are not enough resources to go around and support all schools and students. We all know this is not true! 

Gov. Ned Lamont recently released his budget proposal reflecting a projected budget surplus and budget reserve of $6.4 billion. Yet, despite this sizable surplus that could finally bring equity to education funding in our state, the governor’s proposed plan does not prioritize students. It does not include the continued phase-in of weighted funding for public schools. Nor does the governor’s $50.5 billion spending plan include additional funding for the state’s approximately 11,000 public charter school students, doing a disservice to our highest needs students.

Federal COVID-relief funds helped, but Connecticut’s schools are set to lose over $1 billion when those funds expire. This will result in the loss of classroom teachers, special education teachers, guidance counselors, tutors and instructional aides at a time when these positions remain hard to fill. Our students will suffer.

I’m sickened by the long-standing inequities in our state’s broken public education system and the elected leaders who allow it to stay that way because they do not have any skin in the game. 

As part of Connecticut’s public education system, charter schools give thousands of families educational options in communities where access to great schools is limited – often in communities of color and low-income communities. New Beginnings Family Academy (NBFA) is among 21 charter schools in Connecticut that provide families access to a great public education.

In 2002, NBFA became Bridgeport’s first elementary charter school. Of our roughly 500 students, 54 percent of our students are African-American, 44 percent are Hispanic, 13 percent are multilingual learners and about 10 percent receive special education services. Recognizing that children learn better when they see themselves reflected in their teachers, the majority of NBFA’s teachers – and our leaders – are people of color. 

NBFA focuses on the whole child, offering an emotionally responsive approach to teaching and learning in every classroom. We educate students in grades Pre-K to 8 through experience-based learning that helps them develop essential social, emotional, and critical-thinking skills. Students learn how to navigate the world around them, build confidence and master standards-based skills together. Children receive the necessary foundation to reach their full potential and be positive change-agents in their communities.  

NBFA is proof that by reimagining a more just education, we can make a big difference in the lives of students. Despite myriad challenges faced during 2021-22, students made noteworthy gains in reading and math. Based on the spring 2022 state assessment, NBFA exceeded the state average in English language arts and math growth following the return to in-person learning. NBFA was also in the top 25th percentile in reading growth. In addition, NBFA partnered with families to significantly reduce pandemic-related chronic absenteeism rates.

Like all charter schools, NBFA students enroll through a blind lottery. We open our doors to any student who applies and do the best job we can educating them with even less funding than our cash-strapped host districts. But the funds we do receive go directly to the classroom and make a tangible difference in the day-to-day lives of our teachers, students and families. We are able to offer smaller class sizes and hands-on instruction in a safe and nurturing learning environment, provide breakfast and lunch prepared onsite each day and provide teachers ongoing professional development.

Governor Lamont claims to be focused on growing Connecticut’s economy and developing our workforce. Well, a strong public education system drives economic development and guarantees a qualified workforce. However, without investments in education that equitably fund our most vulnerable students, such goals will be forever out of reach. 

The budget is not a forced choice: we can use our resources wisely and do right by our students simultaneously. Then, we will achieve our promise of an equitable education system. 

Yes, I am the leader of NBFA. I am also a parent. My husband and I exercised our right to choose the best public school for our children, which meant sending four of our six children to charter schools in Bridgeport and New Haven. And one of our grandchildren is a charter student in the Hartford area. My family has real skin in the game. 

Education is a right not a privilege. Yet, the current status quo system only works for a few who already can afford all the choices in the world – like moving to a wealthy neighborhood or paying for a private education – while severely limiting opportunities for Black and brown families who are being denied access to fully funded and great public school options. Our communities deserve a student-centered, need-based funding system regardless of their race, zip code, or type of public school they attend. 

I urge Governor Lamont and the legislature to pass a budget that permanently prioritizes students and achieves funding equity for all public schools this legislative session. Let’s stop being two-faced and fully fund ALL public schools for the first time.

Ronelle P. Swagerty is the Director and Chief Executive Officer of New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport.