“What will Connecticut’s commitment be to its educators?” CEA President Kate Dias asked members of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee during a public hearing last night. “Will their starting salaries start to move up? Will their class sizes go down? Will they be afforded the prep time necessary to do the good work they do? Will there be solid investments in the infrastructure of public education across the state?”
Members of the Appropriations Committee, responsible for the legislature’s budget writing process, heard testimony yesterday on the education funding portion of the governor’s budget proposal. Dias urged them to think long and hard about the importance of education to our state and what it will take to ensure strong public schools moving forward.
In a CEA survey of members last fall, nearly three-quarters of educators said that, compared to a few years ago, they are more likely to leave the profession or retire early. Dias said that keeping those teachers in the classroom and bringing in more new teachers demands urgency and must be a legislative priority.
“We have to imagine that those teachers are walking out the door, and we have to draw them back. We need to demonstrate to them that the commitment is strong, it is vibrant. We are competing with 100,000 job openings across the State of Connecticut. Teachers have options, and we want them to stay.”
The governor’s budget proposal continues the phase-in of full Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funding for cities and towns, but Dias urged legislators to build on the ECS commitment in the governor’s budget. She commended the governor for including $10 million in federal funding in his budget to help districts attract and retain educators, but said the scale of the teacher shortage demands a more substantial response.
“This is a good start to what we believe should be a significant new investment in education,” Dias said. “However, a bold statement of investment is needed today, and $10 million is not bold. Our educators need a strong, visible, and significant commitment to the things that will improve their working conditions.”
In 1986, with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and a Democrat as governor, Connecticut passed the Education Enhancement Act, which included $300 million for teacher salaries and class size reduction.
“That is equal to $800 million in today’s dollars,” Dias said. “It is time for the legislature to pass a landmark Education Advancement and Innovation Act that addresses the critical issues affecting schools today.”
Dias said that the following would be essential to include in an Education Advancement and Innovation Act.
- Reductions to class sizes
- Starting salaries for teachers at 3.25 times the Federal Poverty Level for a family of two
- Salary increases in line with similarly educated professionals
- Incentives to attract students into education preparation programs and free public university tuition for required professional-level credits
- An audit of the amount of funding and resources, including time, expended for state-wide standardized mastery testing
“These are investments that will signal Connecticut is a destination for educators where we believe in and support the work they do,” Dias said.
Danbury teachers speak to consequences of underfunding
For many years Danbury has spent the least per pupil of all districts in Connecticut, and teachers there see how the lack of state funding hurts their students. A group of Danbury teachers traveled to Hartford last night to let legislators know what their students need.
Fourth-grade teacher Lori Woodruff, a life-long Danbury resident, said to legislators, “Danbury schools are terribly underfunded We do not have enough staff to meet student needs, and we ask that you please help us.”
She continued, “We are overwhelmed, we need support staff, we need more books. Ninety-five percent of the library in my classroom I bought with my own money. We need more funding for hands-on science and more exposure to the arts.”
After school, Woodruff works without pay running a theater program for 48 fourth- and fifth-graders. “I do this program for free. I am getting burnt out and I don’t want to be burnt out,” she said. “These kids deserve the best of me. We need your help to provide Danbury Public School Children what they need. We have been doing good work with less for too many years.”
Describing herself as a product of the Danbury Public Schools, a Dominican-American, and a 20-year veteran of Danbury Schools, Nilda Almonte said, “Investing in Danbury Public Schools means you’re investing in every student, every family, every teacher, and not just a select group. We are woefully underfunded and severely overcrowded.”
Unlike many other Connecticut towns and cities that are seeing declining enrollment, Danbury Schools’ student population has grown substantially in recent years.
Almonte said that large class sizes and too few school counselors and social workers mean that Danbury public schools are not the ideal environment they should be for students.
Dr. Lammia Agoora grew up in an immigrant family and attended Danbury Public Schools, which she says prepared her to receive her Bachelor’s, two Master’s, and a Doctoral Degree. A Danbury teacher for more than 30 years, Agoora said that Danbury teachers do the best they can with the funding they have, but “we struggle, we struggle hard.”
Despite severe underfunding, teachers have persevered and many Danbury schools have been named schools of distinction, said Connecticut’s 2020 Elementary Art Educator Donna Bosworth. “It’s clear Danbury schools know how to help kids succeed, and we ask that you allow us to continue to do so with the resources we so desperately need.”
Funding teacher retirement
Robyn Kaplan-Cho, CEA’s retirement specialist, also testified in support of the governor’s proposed budget with respect to its funding of the Teachers’ Retirement Fund (TRF) and the Retired Teachers’ Health Insurance Fund. The budget appropriates the full required funding to the TRF and Health Fund for the next fiscal year.
Kaplan-Cho said that fully funding the TRF is vital for all teachers. “This is critically important to ensuring the long-term solvency of the pension fund on which our active and retired teachers rely for their retirement security.”
For many years, the state underfunded the Retired Teachers’ Health Insurance Fund, and Kaplan-Cho said CEA is pleased to see that the governor’s budget includes the statutorily required appropriation to the Fund. The Health Fund provides a subsidy to retired teachers that covers a portion of their health insurance costs. Active teachers contribute 1.25% of their salaries annually into the Health Fund, and retired teachers on the State Teachers’ Retirement Board health plans pay a premium share into the Health Fund.
Kaplan-Cho said that the Teachers’ Retirement Board has managed to run a quality but cost-efficient health program for retired teachers despite years without adequate funding from the state. In recent years lawmakers have shored up the Fund, but without a continued commitment from the state, the Health Fund could face insolvency. “Due to the full required funding being appropriated over the past several years, combined with recent changes to the Medicare and prescription drug programs instituted by the Board, the Health Fund has finally achieved some stability,” Kaplan-Cho said.
She added that CEA also strongly supports additional staffing for the Retirement Board included in the governor’s budget. “It will allow the agency to better respond to the increasing number of calls and emails it receives and thus improve its services and response times for active and retired teachers.”
Stay tuned for more this legislative session, including information on an Education Committee hearing Wednesday, March 1, on a number of bills of importance to teachers.