CT Gov. Lamont, lawmakers clash over school funding

State legislators and educators say they will not give up in one of the biggest battles at the state Capitol this year, pitting Gov. Ned Lamont against school advocates over funding for kindergarten through grade 12.

Legislators maintain they had a solid agreement with Lamont’s administration last year as part of the two-year budget for an additional $150 million for K-12 public education, but that total has not been placed into the latest budget recommendations for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

Instead, lawmakers say Lamont’s administration is breaking that promise by reducing the original $150 million by taking away increases for charter, magnet, and vocational-agricultural schools. At the same time, Lamont is calling for $43 million in increases for early childhood amid a strong need for day care.

Each side has its own statistics and arguments in a battle that will be fought in the coming months as lawmakers scramble to complete the overall $26 billion state budget before the regular legislative session ends on May 8.

Kate Dias, president of the state’s largest teachers’ union, joined fellow advocates during a press conference last week against the proposed cuts and said the state historically has fallen behind in education.

“At the end of the day, the critical thing to remember is we’ve never fully funded education,” Dias told a standing-room-only crowd at the Capitol complex. “It’s never happened — or my teachers wouldn’t have a starting salary of $48,000. So I think we really need to understand we’ve never actually done the really hard things that we need to do that would allow our teachers, our pre-K, everyone to make reasonable middle-class wages in the state of Connecticut, a very expensive place to live.”

The broader picture shows that billions of dollars are spent every year on public education in Connecticut and tens of billions over the past decade.

Lamont’s budget calls for sending $2.362 billion in state money to the cities and towns during the upcoming 2025 fiscal year in education cost-sharing grants, the largest category of education aid. That represents an increase from $2.017 billion in the 2019 fiscal year when Lamont took office — an addition of $345 million. The ECS grants are only a portion of the overall money spent by local towns, which rely heavily on property taxes to generate most of the local school budget.

When all funding sources are counted, Connecticut spent $11.4 billion during the 2022-23 school year for an average of more than $21,000 per student, according to the governor’s budget office. The total does not include debt, school construction, and state contributions to teachers’ retirement.

The Hamden-based School + State Finance Project reports that Connecticut spent nearly $12.4 billion on K-12 education during the 2021 fiscal year. That total was based on U.S. Census Bureau data and includes school construction costs and teacher pension payments. That translates to 58% paid by local communities, 36% by the state, and 5.4% by the federal government.

In the current clash at the state Capitol, the issue focuses on $43 million for early childhood and $48 million that is proposed to be taken from the original $150 million for K-12 schools.

Christopher Keating

Gov. Ned Lamont says the state only has so much room under the spending cap as he is making major investments in education. At the same time, educators and advocates say they are not getting enough money for the public schools. Lamont stands in an earlier photo with his budget chief, Jeffrey Beckham, and his chief counsel, Natalie Braswell.

Rep. Jeff Currey, the co-chairman of the education committee, hosted the news conference Thursday with advocates representing school boards, superintendents, and municipalities that was attended by both Democrats and Republicans. Currey has been the most outspoken legislator saying that the Lamont administration must keep to last year’s promise regarding $150 million for K-12.

“We are standing here today in solidarity to ask the governor to simply keep your word,” Currey said as he was surrounded by lawmakers and other advocates. “For years, we have been at this fight, and we have been told ‘no’ every single year. And we simply say, ‘OK, we’ll be back next year, and we’re going to fight harder.’ They told us yes, so we did not think this was going to happen to a historic investment of $150 million.”

While Lamont is simultaneously calling for major increases in early childhood education, lawmakers believe that the state’s relatively strong budget picture can pay for both. In recent years, about $8 billion was set aside to help pay down the state’s pension liabilities as the state has had larger surpluses than expected.

“We believed that we were going to come into a short session and have a bit of an easier time, just kind of tinkering around the edges,” Currey said. “But we all woke up about a week and a half ago with something else in mind, it seems. … The early childhood deserves the same respect and commitment this year. We can, and we should do both.”

Currey added, “The attempt to pit us against each other is not the path forward. The appropriate path of least resistance is investing in both. … We are going to do this together.”

Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, a former candidate for lieutenant governor and current coalition director for Child Care for Connecticut’s Future, said her group will not remain silent simply because child care is expected to receive a huge boost in funding.

“The people outside this room are telling us: ‘Take the money. Run. Why does it matter where it’s coming from? It’s more money for early care. Isn’t that what you want?’ ” Zimmerman said. “Not if it’s on the backs of other children. Not if it’s on the backs of teachers who have sacrificed in the K-12 system. Yes, we need money, and we do need it now. But we need to make sure that we have solidarity.”

Eva Bermudez Zimmerman is a strong advocate for early childhood education but says increases should not be on the backs of children in the K-12 system.

Susan Haigh / AP

Eva Bermudez Zimmerman is a strong advocate for early childhood education but says increases should not be on the backs of children in the K-12 system.

Appropriations

The initial battles over the money will be fought in the education and appropriations committees. If the money is not restored or replaced in some way, advocates say that local school boards could end up reducing programs, raising property taxes or laying off paraprofessionals and teachers.

State Rep. Cathy Osten, a key player in the debate as co-chairwoman of the budget-writing committee, said during a hearing last week that lawmakers have to look at the broader perspective.

“Our concern is that people in the general public think our schools are sitting on a nest egg when that egg may already have been cracked,” Osten warned colleagues at the Capitol complex.

During the hearing, Osten joked that she looks forward to Rep. Kathleen McCarty, the committee’s ranking House Republican, voting to break the state’s spending cap in order to provide more money for education.

McCarty objected to that characterization, adding, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“And there’s only a way when we have more money,” Osten responded.

Lamont, though, counters that more than $400 million is still available in federal ESSER, which stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and was created during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes more than $60 million each in Hartford and Waterbury, $41.6 million in Bridgeport, $37.5 million in New Haven, and $30.5 million in New Britain.

“Sometimes people think there’s a cliff, and it stops in six months. That’s not true,” Lamont said recently regarding the federal funds. “They have an extra $400 million to invest over the next, I think it’s two years. We’re trying to honor our commitment to our schools since that’s a lot of what the state’s about: great schools.”

Lamont added, “Nobody’s getting cut. Maybe they’re not getting an increase as fast as they want, but nobody’s getting cut.”

Lamont’s budget director, Jeffrey Beckham, said Lamont is proposing a wide variety of education funding in the $26 billion overall budget.

“The current budget disguises municipal aid as education funding, essentially sending aid budgeted for magnet and vo-ag students back to their home district as a tuition subsidy rather than adding resources for classroom learning,” Beckham said. “Our proposal increases ECS funding, fully funds charter schools and vo-ag schools at the statutory amount, and increases the per pupil grant for both magnet schools and open choice schools. It supports the continuation of free school breakfast statewide, subsidizes the student’s share of reduced-price meals, and permanently funds the nationally recognized LEAP program, addressing chronic absence. If the General Assembly is truly serious about ensuring that all Connecticut students will be successful, they will support the governor’s proposal.”

Trust fund for child care

House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford, a key player in the final budget negotiations, says legislators will not know until late April if they have enough money to cover all requests because millions of dollars flow into state coffers from the traditional April 15 tax deadline. That includes millions in state income tax that is paid from capital gains by Fairfield County millionaires and billionaires, who have seen their portfolios increase recently as Wall Street stock prices have been reaching all-time highs.

Concerning magnet schools, Ritter said, “I don’t believe that funding is in jeopardy. I think the advocates have a job to do to persuade people. We’re not kings and queens. We have to work with people, but my feeling is that’s not going to be touched.”

Ritter floated the idea of placing the child care money in a trust fund that had been created last year by the legislature that would be outside the state’s spending cap.

The trust fund does not change the guardrails that Lamont and Republicans have steadfastly vowed to defend.

“You create a trust fund. What are we supposed to do? Stare at it, blankly?” Ritter asked. “You could put some of that money into the child care trust fund, potentially. Is that outside the cap? Yes. But it’s a trust fund. It was established to be outside the cap. That’s all we’re saying. … That doesn’t affect our rating agencies, our credit rating, none of that stuff. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s only February. And if April goes well, a lot of this stuff is an easier conversation if we have an operating surplus that is higher than projected.”

After negotiating delicate budget deals through the years, Ritter predicts there will eventually be a compromise under the Gold Dome.

“We are $300 to $400 million apart [overall], but we will get there,” Ritter said. “I am very confident.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.

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