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Federal ESSA Funding for CT Schools, Vaccination Policy, and Funding Equity in 2021

This weekly segment by Democrats for Education Reform CT looks at the top education stories Democrats are watching, providing bite-sized analysis and links to recent articles. On the roster this week: Federal ESSA Funding for CT Schools, Vaccination Policy, and Funding Equity in 2021.

Federal ESSA Funding for Connecticut Schools

Over the past week, Connecticut has made headlines for a new study that shows the state is under-identifying schools that need federal support under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). According to the report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, Connecticut has a restrictive definition of the “consistently underperforming” classification, such that schools and subgroups may be missing out on Title I funding for their improvement. The state has disputed this observation, pointing to state-level investments in school and district turnaround, such as the Commissioner’s Network. But given the state’s widely documented academic performance gaps by race and poverty level, the finding deserves more clarity.

ESSA established increased flexibility for states, allowing them to build their own accountability systems, after years of criticism that its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, was too prescriptive and too focused on testing. Connecticut's current system uses twelve indicators to capture a holistic picture of school performance over time. However, under that model, only 4% of Connecticut schools wound up being identified for comprehensive or targeted support with federal dollars, the lowest of any state studied in the report. If Connecticut can modify its ESSA accountability plan under the Biden administration, schools in need of greater resources could become eligible for large amounts of federal improvement funds.

Updates on Vaccines and Education

Over the weekend, Governor Lamont announced a plan for distribution of the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine. The second phase, between January and May, will reach critical workers, and will include teachers. But a New York Times article yesterday cautioned that vaccinating the teacher force could take longer than we might hopegiven that the vaccines require two shots, several weeks apart, and that there are only a limited number available in the near future.

In related news, legislators are beginning to consider how COVID will impact legislative efforts to eliminate religious exemptions to school immunization requirementswhich were short-circuited when the pandemic hit. This year was a stark reminder of how an unchecked virus can disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities. DFER CT has been a vocal proponent of this legislation because children have a right to classrooms that are safe from preventable diseases. It is unsafe and unfair to let an individual choice undermine the public health imperative for herd immunity and the protection of those who cannot be vaccinated. Some legislators worry that skeptics will attempt to use uncertainties about the new COVID vaccine to block this important piece of legislation. However, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney has said that the pandemic makes the legislation all-the-more urgent, and House Speaker Matt Ritter says the House has the votes. While a short 1-2 year phase-in is a reasonable compromise, Connecticut should not grandfather in young students with religious exemptions for up to 12 years, as in last year’s Health Committee version. That would continue to risk efficacy and equity.

Setting the Table for Funding Equity in 2021

Last week, our friends at FaithActs for Education hosted a virtual event to advocate for legislation that equitably funds Black, Latino, and low-income students in all public schools. Pastors described the current funding system as racist and classist, urging the legislature to take collective action. But the solution must be deeper than simply adding extra state funds in poorer districts. In fact, despite lawmakers' efforts to narrow budget disparities by updating the ECS funding formula in 2017, adding a 10-year phase in of over $300M for district public schools, increased spending in wealthy districts has kept gaps wide, and schools of choice remain out of the equation. At the forum, legislators discussed the need for uncomfortable conversations about how property taxes fund school districts and about how zoning rules keep them both segregated and economically siloed. Lots more to come on this in 2021!

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