The campus at Central Connecticut State University. CTMirror photo

Connecticut’s greatness as a state results from the daily labor and enduring generosity of its people — a great many of whom can be described as the working poor (or, to use the United Way’s terminology, as ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).

The policies of our state — both for economic, and for moral reasons — must serve not only to maintain the lives and livelihoods of those of its people who already enjoy material comfort, but also to improve the circumstances of those whose essential, day-to-day expenses for too long have consumed all of — and, in too many cases, exceeded — their modest incomes.

The budgets that have been proposed to date by your two branches of government, while undoubtedly well-intended, fall short of this goal. Worse, they seem to prioritize the desires of bond holders and rating agencies for long-term fiscal discipline over the immediate needs of lower-income residents for economic relief and greater access to educational institutions that are worthy of them.

Well over a century ago, the philosopher John Dewey wrote,

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.

To our shame, the very situation about which Dewey admonished his readers has increasingly characterized education — both at the P-12 and post-secondary levels — in Connecticut. While these disparities have been well documented for decades, our state’s elected leaders have chosen to defer — and thereby to deny — economic and educational justice to low-income young people and their families.

I write to urge you all to devise a budget that finally addresses in real terms the root causes of the longstanding inequities in our state. In truth, Connecticut already is — and will continue — paying for these inequities, but with no actual (or actuarial) benefit to the state or its residents.

  • We are slated, for example, to continue paying over $70 million per year just to transport students from one school district to another in fulfillment of the Sheff settlement. While perhaps necessary in the short term, these expenditures do nothing whatsoever to improve the quality of the school districts from which some (but by no means all) youngsters are being bused. It amounts to little more than throwing good money after bad.
  • We continue incrementally to fund the Education Cost Sharing formula, congratulating ourselves for moving in the right direction towards a goal that should never have been necessary, but heedless of the opportunity costs — both for the individual students and for the state as a whole — of not fully funding ECS immediately.
  • We continue to fund public higher education — especially the state’s community colleges and regional universities — inadequately, thereby requiring low-income students — most of whom have already been adversely impacted by Connecticut’s unjust P-12 education funding mechanism — to pay more for even less of what the state had formerly provided for college students. Faculty and staff at these institutions work increasingly hard at far-from-generous salaries to provide the ever-growing instructional, emotional, and career supports that our students require and deserve.
  • OPM Secretary Jeffrey Beckham insists, for example, that the Connecticut State College and Universities system needs to economize. My question as a faculty member at Southern Connecticut State University is: Isn’t teaching four courses per semester (while advising dozens of students, providing service to the university and to the community, remaining current in my discipline, and conducting socially impactful research) enough? Our colleagues at the kinds of flagship public institutions and private universities from which many policymakers (and, indeed, many of us faculty members) have graduated teach only two courses per semester. That fact alone demonstrates that the CSCU system is far from profligate with the resources at its disposal — most of which, because of limited state funding, comes from our students in the form of tuition and fees.
  • Secretary Beckham suggests further that decreasing enrollments should automatically result in commensurate decreases in spending within the institutions that comprise the CSCU system. He fails to recognize that such one-to-one correlations do not exist, as students are not taught singly but as members of classes. Certainly, fewer sections of classes can be offered — as, indeed, is already happening across the CSCU system, but there is a point of diminishing returns to such reductions; the benefits (in dollars and cents) gained by such economizing are more than cancelled out by the costs (in personal terms) to students. Students in the CSCU system work multiple jobs, and fulfill child and elder care obligations within their families, in addition to pursuing their post-secondary educations. The elimination of course sections, when our students’ personal schedules already limit when they are available to register for classes, further hinders students who are already working against the odds to better themselves, their families, and their state. In some cases, it prolongs students’ programs; in too many others, it causes students to abandon them.

Rather than continuing to be treated (at worst) as externalities, or (at best) as objects of policymakers’ attentions at a future time when economic circumstances are otherwise ideal, low-income students and their families must be top-of-mind, now, when critical decisions about Connecticut’s state budget are being made. Connecticut certainly has the means; we must finally demonstrate the will.

Christopher Trombly is an Associate Professor at Southern Connecticut State University.