As School Districts Anticipate Cuts, Budget Stabilization Bill Passes

Belen Dumont, CT Latino News

Superintendents across the state are concerned about intensifying learning gaps and their ability to address the unique needs of their diverse districts as COVID-era relief funding expires.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted districts across the state, data shows that the pandemic has also fueled achievement gaps for the state’s growing student-of-color and English Language Learner (ELL) populations

As the pandemic disrupted students’ daily lives, Connecticut schools received a total of $1.7 billion in federal relief funding to cope with the ramifications. After three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, granted in 2020 and 2021, districts must use the remaining funds by September 30, 2024. 

However, the incoming loss of ESSER funds was met with the passing of H.B. 5523 on Tuesday, May 7. The budget stabilization bill maintains last year’s promise of adding $150 million to K-12 education for fiscal year 2025. The bill also incorporates a student-centered funding formula that prioritizes students’ individual learning needs wherever they live or whichever type of public school they attend. 

“This is a historic achievement that not only increases funding for Connecticut’s students but helps untangle the state’s disjointed and inequitable web of education funding formulas by putting in place for FY 2025 a single, transparent formula to support both local and regional public school districts as well as public schools of choice…” reads a press release by The School and State Finance Project.

Before the passing of  H.B. 5523, sixty district leaders completed a survey conducted by The School and State Finance Project and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) that looked to explore how the expiration of ESSER funds would impact staff and students. 

The results, published April 18, emphasized districts’ concerns of widening achievement gaps and worsening staff shortages—particularly among low-performing (“Alliance”) school districts with high-need students. Connecticut has a history of seeing racial disparities in education funding, which sustain long-standing inequities in education quality, access, and outcomes. 

Across the state, there are about 275,000 students of color—representing 54% of the total student population—and 54,000 multilingual learners who speak over 145 languages. In urban school districts like Hartford, which expects over 400 positions to be cut this upcoming school year, about 57% of students identify as Hispanic/Latino, and more than one in five students are English Language Learners (ELL)


Increasing Educator Diversity Across Connecticut

As the numbers of Hispanic/Latino students and English Language Learners (ELL) in Connecticut are rapidly increasing, these growths are concentrated in a handful of districts. Longstanding achievement gaps persist when diverse districts with high-need students do not receive adequate resources or funding to address those needs.

More than 80% of district leaders said the loss of ESSER funding would likely impact their schools’ abilities to meet students’ learning and mental health needs and help those with greater learning needs, including multilingual learners, children with disabilities, and students living in poverty. 

Critical efforts to amend learning gaps—including tutoring and academic improvement programs, student mental health services, and summer learning programs—are likely to be reduced or eliminated once ESSER funding expires. According to the survey’s results, these cuts are predicted to directly impact almost 64,000 students. 

“We will need to cut back on extended student learning supports that were funded with ESSER funds,” writes a survey respondent. “ESSER funds allowed us to extend learning opportunities for students beyond the regular established programs and we were able to target specific student needs and help that student improve.” 

As districts—particularly alliance districts—face consequential cuts to programs that address students’ specific needs, choice schools have also been preparing for a loss of funds. 

Prior to H.B. 5523, Gov. Ned Lamont’s February budget proposal retracted $10.2 million that was allocated to open choice programs in the preliminary budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year. However, the recently passed bill reallocates approximately $11.4 million to Open Choice Programs.

“The cut on choice schools is a direct cut on communities of color and a direct cut in the future educational opportunities for kids of color,” ConnCAN Executive Director Steven Hernández told the CT Mirror. “In a lot of ways, [choice schools] are the last opportunity for public education that actually works for kids and that is led by teachers that look like those children.”

Nearly half of the districts surveyed said sustaining staff and teacher levels was a top challenge. Alliance districts were more likely to report recruitment and retention as a main concern and overwhelmingly expressed that the loss of ESSER funds would likely lead to cuts in staffing levels. 

About 257 positions across the state—particularly for paraeducators, mental health professionals, and tutors—will be at risk of being eliminated or left open, according to the survey’s results. 

The loss of ESSER funds may set back progress made in recent years to increase educator diversity across the state. 

“Given that the education workforce has diversified dramatically in recent years, there is a risk that new staff of color will be more likely to be let go in school districts with layoffs, which typically target the newest hires,” reported the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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