Do candidates support children?
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (“AROS”), a coalition of parent, community and labor groups, recently issued a report, Confronting the Education Debt, finding that over the past 13 years, the United States has underfunded its schools by more than $580 billion in federal dollars alone. The group focused thirteen-year-span because it corresponds to the public school experience, from kindergarten, of a student graduating in 2017.
As AROS notes, federal funds amount to a very small portion, about 8 percent, of a school district’s education funding. However, the bulk of these funds is targeted to some of the neediest children, children living in poverty and students with disabilities, so these small amounts make a big difference for impoverished school districts.
Title I of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, enacted in 1965 was intended to direct federal funds to schools with high concentrations of poverty. Since its enactment, Title I has never been fully funded. In the past 13 years, Congress has only appropriated on average only fourteen percent of the full-funding amount. Nationwide, our poorest districts have been shortchanged almost $350 billion dollars over the past thirteen years alone. Connecticut’s poorest districts lost out on over $3 billion dollars since 2005; and over $300 million in 2017 alone.
The Individual with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 was designed to address the needs of students with disabilities. Congress promised to fund 40 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities under this law; however, IDEA too has been underfunded since its inception. Over the past thirteen years, Congress has appropriated on average only 16 percent of the full-funding amount, resulting in a loss of at least $233 billion. Connecticut’s students with disabilities lost over two billion dollars during this period; and over $189 million in 2017 alone.
The federal funding shortfalls for Connecticut’s most vulnerable students compound the deficiencies in what should be their largest funding source: state dollars.
In this gubernatorial election season, where the Republican candidate is pledging to drastically reduce public revenue and the Democratic candidate can only commit to flat funding education, it is important to review the conditions in our state’s poorest schools.
Recall that the CCJEF court found severe deprivations of critical educational resources in Connecticut’s poorest districts. These schools lacked preschool, bilingual services, social workers, guidance counselors, reading and math interventions and other staff and services necessary for underserved children to access their rights to an education. Connecticut’s highest court agreed that these deprivations exist and that the lack of these programs, staff and services impedes the ability of Connecticut’s most vulnerable students to access the state’s educational offerings.
These severe resource deficiencies have not magically gone away. In fact, they are likely to get worse. The legislature tinkered with the Educational Cost Sharing (“ECS”) Formula last session but the end result of the legislative session was a net reduction in ECS funding.
The legislature reduced overall state education funding, knowing that our neediest children in Bridgeport, New London, Windham and elsewhere across the state lack the basic building blocks of an adequate education. Our poorest districts are also majority students of color. Thus, providing adequate education funding is not only a matter of basic fairness, but it also a matter of racial justice.
A state budget reflects what state leaders value. If our leaders value our children, particularly our most underserved children, then they must, once and for all, put their money where their mouths are. To enact meaningful school finance reform, which does not mean just shifting inadequate resources around, they must first assess the real cost of education today in Connecticut, then find a way to pay for it.
Providing out most vulnerable students with basic, indispensable educational resources should be our top priority. In this election season it is up to us to make sure those who want to be our representatives and those who want to remain our representatives finally make adequately funding public education their priority.
Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.