A Year in Review:
Connecticut Education and Equity in 2020
The year 2020 will always be defined by COVID 19, and because of it, the Connecticut education landscape has shifted dramatically in just 12 months. This timeline explores the issues that mattered most each month, and the role that we've played in advocating for all Connecticut students.
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We kicked off 2020 with a CTNewsJunkie op-ed that discussed a poll of Democratic primary voters, which had shown considerable consensus on the need for: affordable housing efforts, increasing public school choice options, and removing religious exemptions to school immunization requirements. Our affiliate, Education Reform Now CT (ERN CT), also unveiled an Education Equity Agenda for the legislative session
On the heels of the Governor’s CT Post op-ed expressing a desire to move towards voluntary regionalization efforts and Mayor Bronin’s call to end regressive housing policies—ERN CT released the MORE Act, a plan to incentivize inclusivity by tying bonuses in school construction grants to municipal efforts to increase affordable housing.
The novel coronavirus began to dominate the headlines in March, with event cancellations, school closures, and even a halt mid-way through the 2020 legislative session. As an organization committed to equity, our immediate concern was for students whose social safety nets are built around their schools. Bridgeport Public Schools was among the first in the state to provide meals for students, with others following suit. And Congress quickly passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which allowed states to use the SNAP Program to provide families with groceries in lieu of a weekday meal pick-up at school.
We also began to voice concerns about how distance learning might lead to educational inequities, exacerbated by both the digital divide and reduced accountability in the face of an assessment waiver. At the end of March, the Partnership for Connecticut announced that it would provide 60,000 laptops to students in need. At the beginning of April, Amy penned an op-ed for the Stamford Advocate, urging continued accountability and a return to testing in the Spring of 2021.
"...Beyond preparing online lessons, districts will need to address the impact of school closures for students who rely on free and reduced price meals provided at school."
- DFER CT "Wednesday Weekly,” March 11th
“For children and families… significant state and federal responses have largely tackled immediate social distancing requirements and economic realities. In the long-term, however, there will be a need to address the potentially disproportionate implications of this crisis on vulnerable student subgroups, which may lead to widening achievement gaps.”
- DFER CT "Wednesday Weekly,” March 25th
February saw the release of two other high-priority policy agenda items. Legislators released the first draft of HB 5044, a bill that would require children to be vaccinated from infectious diseases in order to attend public school unless they have a medical exemption. In the wake of an inter-state measles outbreak, ERN CT had spent a year advocating for this policy change because families have a right to safe and healthy classrooms free of preventable disease. Now, amidst a pandemic, the idea looks prescient.
We also began to showcase great reporting on the Science of Reading, which describes a long-standing consensus among cognitive scientists and educational researchers about the correct way to teach literacy skills. (See, e.g., coverage by the NY Times and Emily Hanford.) Connecticut has taken a local approach to literacy instruction, not yet embracing the established research-based methods in far too many classrooms and some educator preparation programs.
With conference calls and Zoom quickly becoming a pillar of remote work, ERN CT and DFER CT promptly scheduled three "virtual forums" to address immediate, practical policy concerns: (1) How higher education leaders were responding to COVID-19; (2) How district leaders were addressing the new realities of remote learning; and (3) How the state could plan for the upcoming elections to be safe and fair during a pandemic.
ERN CT also released four goals for education recovery that the organization suggested the state consider, using federal CARES Act funding to produce an education recovery plan that would also improve public education in the long-term: (1) amped up professional development on the pedagogy of online/remote learning; (2) increased instructional time for students returning to school after a "COVID-19 Slide;" (3) focus on students' social and emotional well-being during and after this crisis; and (4) diagnostic assessments to monitor learning losses and make data-driven decisions on intervention.
With session cut short, former state Speaker of the House of Representatives Brendan Sharkey (D) and former CT Senate Minority Leader John McKinney (R) published a joint, bipartisan Hartford Courant op-ed, imploring the legislature to work towards ending non-medical vaccine exemptions for preventable diseases. They observed that the country's hope for a COVID-19 vaccine exposes just how important immunizations are to our society, and to our economy.
We also continued to promote the Science of Reading and the concept that students have a right to read, highlighting legislation to improve literacy in Connecticut, which had been championed by Representative Pat Billie Miller until the legislative session’s early end. The Sixth District Court of Appeals (not our jurisdiction, but still interesting!) said that students have a right to a basic minimum education, including "a chance at foundational literacy" in Gary B. Snyder.
The world was shaken by the murder of George Floyd. We heard from DFER National President Shavar Jeffries about how the racism that killed Floyd and so many others is the same racism that denies Black people equity in all aspects of American life, including educational equity.
Then, Jeffries joined House Majority Leader Jason Rojas in our virtual forum on the systemic racism within our communities and our schools. Representative Rojas discussed the affordable housing bill ERN CT had been working on with him, which sought to give bonuses in school construction grants to municipalities that undertake serious efforts to create more inclusive housing and zoning policies. He also discussed CK3LI, a homegrown literacy initiative that had been championed by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in years past, and the need to appropriately teach phonics and literacy in school.
Much of the summer was taken up with analysis of the state’s changing plans to reopen schools. At the beginning of July, we applauded the state’s call for full-time, in-person reopening. But we also cautioned that a failure to impose actual requirements would lead to increased inequities within and between districts.
“The state’s current plan would fail to establish requirements that cross district lines to monitor student learning growth, what remote learning should look like, or the high bar we set for all students and schools. If this shortcoming is not addressed, then
uneven and inequitable local policies will remain the norm across racial and socio-economic lines.”
- DFER CT Special Reopening Edition of "Wednesday Weekly," July 1, 2020
“The most equitable path is to require that, regardless of which town a student lives in, they have access to what experts all agree is the most effective form of remote learning: comprehensive live instruction.”
- DFER CT “Wednesday Weekly,” July 29th
“The lack of state-level requirements means that local education authorities will need to evaluate matters of public health; students in different towns will receive different, unequal learning experiences; and Connecticut’s achievement gap will only worsen.”
- DFER CT “Wednesday Weekly,” August 6th
ERN CT circulated an analysis of education recovery plans from other states that were exercising their authority over local control to implement a vision for learning during the pandemic that included: meaningful remote learning policies; diagnostic screeners; and prioritizing student need. And we spilled a lot of ink over the idea that, while other states were establishing statewide requirements, Connecticut was ceding its authority to local municipalities.
ERN CT released a new report, Steady Habits, Stagnant Results: CT Solutions for Equity & Excellence in Literacy. The report looked at the performances of 3rd and 4th graders on both the SBAC and the NAEP, identifying: that too few students meet grade-level expectations statewide; that there are wide gaps in reading attainment along racial lines; and that literacy problems span all income levels. The report also highlighted the Science of Reading, arguing that there's a correct method for literacy instruction, and that we aren't using it statewide.
In a Hartford Courant op-ed, Amy discussed CK3LI and said that Connecticut should build upon this work through a state-led effort.
The Connecticut State Department of Education sent a memo to superintendents indicating that the state planned to return to administering the SBAC in the spring of 2021—a commendable leadership moment.
Preparing for elections across the state and nation, ERNA CT released a Public Policy Polling survey that found Connecticut voters were split on whether they trusted voting by mail-in or absentee ballot. Connecticut had passed laws earlier this year to make it easier for people concerned about COVID-19 to vote, including allowing for “no excuse” absentee ballot voting. 61% of Connecticut voters indicated a desire to see the state allow for early in-person voting.
We put out a pre-Election Day DFER CT Playbook, analyzing increased voter registration, who had voted already, who was expected to vote, and the races we were watching closely. ERN CT also released preliminary political research finding that, in the universe of CT Democrats who did not vote in the 2018 primary, outreach via text drove increased voter turnout of 1%, a very significant finding.
Connecticut’s House and Senate Caucuses picked their leadership for the next two year cycle, with President Pro Tem Martin Looney and Majority Leader Bob Duff retaining their roles in the Senate and with Representative Matt Ritter stepping up to the role of Speaker of the House. Representative Jason Rojas was also elected as the new House Majority Leader, the first person of color ever to assume that leadership position in the state. Lots of education champions in this group!
Later in the month, Amy moderated a panel hosted by Partnership for Strong Communities, which featured Representative Rojas and other housing and education experts.
As this challenging year comes to a close, we end on three high notes. This month, Connecticut became the first state to distribute learning devices and internet connections to every student in need, closing the digital divide in a manner that is bound to have positive repercussions beyond the pandemic.
In addition, the state and nation are finally seeing the distribution of a much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine. We hope that teachers, who have worked so hard to keep students on track, will be prioritized for vaccination in the early months of 2021.
Lastly, during the week of Christmas, Connecticut’s own Commissioner Miguel Cardona was nominated by the Biden Administration for the role of US Secretary of Education. In a press statement, we applauded the choice, noting that Dr. Cardona has fought both for equity and to keep students in the classroom as much as possible during the pandemic. Although we will miss him, we are excited and proud to see him elevated to the national stage!
We are thankful for the teachers who have worked so hard to keep children engaged during this unprecedented year. We are thankful for the leadership we have seen in Connecticut on behalf of students and schools. And we are thankful to all the students who have been so resilient this year. You are stars!
We look forward to working together towards a better future in 2021.
Happy New Year!
- The DFER CT Team -