A clarion call for change for Connecticut’s children

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Connecticut has finally taken a major step toward fair funding for all public school kids. Ruling on a case filed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher denounced the current public school funding formula as unconstitutional and mandated the creation of a new system.

Setting a deadline of 180 days, he ordered state leaders to enact a series of much-needed reforms that have been held prisoner by politics for far too long, acting with the urgency that Connecticut’s children deserve.

This landmark victory for public school students follows decades of committed advocacy by families, educators and their allies. Connecticut’s public school funding formula has long denied thousands of students the resources they need to thrive, and, as Judge Moukawsher noted, has especially disadvantaged low-income students.

Moukawsher ruled that “Beyond a reasonable doubt, Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid and school construction.”

Educators like me are thrilled to see such a bold, sweeping decision from the court, which also mandated other important educational reforms to ensure the state’s plan includes more than just fair funding.

Now the responsibility shifts to the governor and General Assembly who must craft a funding formula that treats all public school children fairly, no matter where they live or what kind of public school they attend. Currently, there are more than 10 different formulas used to fund public school students — and many of those formulas have been jerry-rigged every year for the last 20 years to achieve short-term, political outcomes.

It’s truly a mess — with deep inequity and devastating impact.

To their credit, Gov. Dannel Malloy and some legislators have championed the need for change, but they have had too few allies. As a result, tens of thousands of students across our state have been short-changed for years. Some of the most egregiously underfunded children are those who attend charter schools, which are free, lottery-enrolled, public schools.

I work with Achievement First, a network of public charter schools serving more than 3,800 Connecticut families, and we have spent almost two decades serving some of the state’s highest-need children. Our student population is 87 percent free- and reduced- price lunch, compared to the state average of 38 percent. These students, like any other, deserve a great education that prepares them to succeed in college, career, and life. They deserve schools filled with joy and rigor, where they’re challenged by high expectations and given the support they need to meet them.

Thanks to the hard work of students, parents and teachers, we’re doing everything we can do make this vision a reality and getting strong results. Our Amistad and Elm City schools in New Haven were designated as Schools of Distinction by the State Department of Education, an honor received only by the highest-performing 10 percent of schools in the state.

In Bridgeport, our urban students are outperforming students in Fairfield and Greenwich in math. In Hartford, our high school students not only outperformed the state average, but also earned the highest average SAT scores among low-income students in the state. This success — and the additional work we need to do — is imperiled by Connecticut’s unconstitutional funding formula.

On average, public charter school students receive $4,000 less in annual public funding than district school students, for no reason other than the type of public school they attend. Every year, this arbitrary funding level — which isn’t anchored in need or cost-of-living or benchmarked against any other funding level — results in significant shortfalls and stretches our schools’ budgets even thinner. We’ve already cut staff positions and key supports that our students need to succeed.

Unless the state’s new funding formula levels the playing field for all of Connecticut’s students, we will have to further eliminate academic courses and after-school programs and increase class sizes. Students will lose access to programs that have enriched their education, and thousands of families will remain on charter school wait lists because we’re unable to serve new students.

Our families, like so many others, rightly ask, “Why does the state of Connecticut say that my child is worth so much less than another child?”

The answer is that they’re not. So, instead of giving up and accepting Connecticut’s opportunity-killing approach to funding, the public charter school community is standing with school districts, towns, and cities across the state to call for reform.

As state leaders work to craft a new system, we urge them to implement an equitable funding formula for all of Connecticut’s children. In the words of Judge Moukawsher, “…change must come,” — and it can’t come soon enough.

Dacia Toll is the Co-CEO of Achievement First, a non-profit network of public charter schools, serving over 3,800 students in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.

 

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