On behalf of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK)
Feb. 3, 2023
Senator McCrory, Senator Osten, Rep Currey, Rep. Walker, Senator Berthel, Representative McCarty, Representative Nuccio and members of the Education Committee.
I appear before you today as the Legislative Chair of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK), a statewide organization of parents, providers, attorneys, and advocates fighting for the rights of students with disabilities. SEEK is dedicated to continuing to work collaboratively with these committees for the benefit of the public-school students in the state.
SEEK enthusiastically supports H.B. 5003. Chairman Currey has worked tirelessly to steer more state funding to public schools. The schools got a short-term reprieve with ESSER and ARP funding, but that money disappears on September 30, 2024. Yet, the need remains.
The staff shortage is profound, and especially acute for special education teachers. Raising teacher pay, particularly in areas of the worst shortages, is the one immediate step we can take to address this crisis.
Kids continue to be expelled or suspended because schools lack the resources to provide these troubled youths with the services they need. Schools need money to help the kids who need it the most.
Connecticut has committed itself to structured literacy. That means teacher training and new curricular materials. This costs money.
Student mental health remains a critical concern. Schools need more mental health staff, including social workers, counselors, and school psychologists. And we need to have school psychologists who provide support and counseling to students, not just administer evaluations.
Beyond the aggregate funding issue is the issue of equity. Let’s compare education funding in the five richest Connecticut towns by per capital income, to the education funding in the five poorest Connecticut towns. The income difference is staggering: in the five richest towns, the average per capita income is $98,394 per year, while in the five poorest towns, the average per capita income is $19,818. The per pupil expenditure averages $16,221 in the five poorest towns and averages $22,564 in the five richest towns, a difference of $6,300. Yet, the needs of the students in the five poorest towns are vastly greater: 75% of students in the poor towns qualify for free or reduced lunch, while only 8.4% of the students in the rich towns qualify; 21.3% of the students in the poor towns are English learners, while only 2% of the students in the rich towns are English learners; 20.3% of the students in the poor towns qualify for special education, while 13.7% of students in the rich towns qualify; 88% of the students in the poor towns are not white, while 26% of the students in the rich towns are not white.
The fact that most school funding comes from local property taxes is the primary cause of this egregious inequity. Note that the average mill rate in the five poorest towns is 47, compared to only 19.6 in the five richest towns, meaning there is no way the poor towns can increase their education spending by themselves. The Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant was established to mitigate this inequity. Indeed, 64% of the education money of the five poorest towns comes from the state, while only 1.7% of such money comes from the state for the five richest towns. Still, the current ECS distribution does not do nearly enough to close the yawning gap between the rich and poor towns. H.B. 5003 would narrow the gap more but would come nowhere close to closing it. And equal funding is not equitable funding because the needs of students in the poor towns are so much greater than the needs of students in the rich towns.
H.B. 5003 backfills money for education when federal stimulus monies expire and moves us in the right direction towards equitable funding.
One other point needs to be made. The only state funding that goes directly to special education is the excess cost grant, which is really a catastrophic insurance policy for the most expensive out-of-district placements. Yet, the excess cost grant does nothing to address the quality of special education services within school districts. We ask that the Legislature establish a grant to districts based on the number of special education students served in the district. Only with adequate funding of special education, which does not exist now in many districts, can students with disabilities be assured of the free appropriate public education that Federal and Connecticut law guarantees.
I thank you for the opportunity to testify.