Olha Yarynich, Contributing Photographer

A new legislative session began on Wednesday in Hartford with the state in a historically strong financial position after five straight years of budget surplus. But tensions are high in the Capitol after Gov. Ned Lamont proposed cuts to K-12 education funding to support early childhood care last week. 

The Connecticut General Assembly passed a biennial budget last session to be adjusted this session for fiscal year 2025, a budget which included over $150 million in additional funds for education this coming year. Lamont, however, is determined to stay within the bounds of the state’s spending cap, passed in 1991 and accompanying the introduction of the state’s first income tax. He has proposed cutting education funds allocated last session for education to afford new investments in early childhood care. Local and state officials have expressed outrage at the proposal. 

The budget lawmakers passed last session allocated $150 million in additional funding to public education statewide for the coming fiscal year — including $52 million to magnet and charter programs — and $50 million to early childhood care. The governor’s proposed changes would use some of the $52 million allocated to magnet and charter programs to help fund a supplementary $40 million for childcare. 

Rep. Jeff Currey, co-chair of the Education Committee, voiced his frustration with the governor’s approach in an interview with the CT Mirror soon after the Governor announced the proposal. 

“Unfortunately, the governor has not kept his word,” Currey told the Mirror. “The only thing you bring with you into the legislature is your word.”

Connecticut is facing a crisis of declining educational outcomes, both in terms of statewide graduation rates and core subject performance metrics. According to a new report from the Dalio Foundation, 119,000 youths in Connecticut, or 19 percent of those 14 to 26 years old, qualify as “disconnected youth,” which includes those lacking educational opportunities and employment.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker joined the chorus of politicians and advocates sharing concerns with Lamont’s proposal. 

“Early childhood education is hugely important, and absolutely should get more funding, but not by robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Elicker said.

New labor contracts have included pay raises, a development Elicker welcomes, but New Haven Public Schools must now face increased staffing costs and tighter budgets, all at a time when pandemic-era grant funding is drying up. Elicker said that he worries about the impact of the Governor’s proposal on schools in need of state funds. 

“At a time when we need more educational funding across the system, it’s not time to be cutting those funds,” Elicker told the News.

Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, also criticized Lamont’s proposal, emphasizing the need for increased K-12 education funding in New Haven and statewide. Batteau insisted that funds allocated last session to support public schools must be protected, if not expanded, this session.

“Our teachers need more support for classrooms and school projects and supplies to ensure that they can bring to life hands-on, meaningful experiences for our students,” Batteau said.

Hyclis Williams, president of AFSCME Local 3429 — which represents over 400 paraprofessional educators in New Haven schools — also told the News that she is opposed to the governor’s approach. 

Williams wrote in an email to the News that she would like to see increased state funding for childcare, but not at the cost of much needed funding for Connecticut public schools. Instead, Williams advocated for raising taxes on wealthy Connecticut residents to pay for investments in education.  

“It’s more than possible for us to support our workforce and provide our students with appropriate care and a proper education without creating an either-or approach,” Williams wrote. 

In his State of the State Address Tuesday afternoon, Lamont touted “our state’s largest ever commitment to childcare, K-12 education, our universities, workforce training and not-for-profits” in the biennial budget along with its increased funding for the state’s Education Cost Sharing program — the central state funding source for Connecticut public schools. In addition, Lamont noted $400 million in federal pandemic relief funds made available for Connecticut schools.

Nevertheless, Joe DeLong, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said that he is concerned about the proposed cuts in the context of significant statewide declines in educational outcomes. He warned that poor performance in educational metrics has a concrete impact on property values and even the state’s overall “economic viability.”

“Now’s not the time to be cutting investments to education,” DeLong said.

Unlike many states, Connecticut schools are funded at a hyperlocal level, mostly through property taxes. According to DeLong, this exacerbates educational inequity, especially in cities like New Haven with large tax exempt landholders like Yale. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, however, municipal property taxes already represent a substantial burden on Connecticut residents, who pay the third highest property taxes in the nation. 

DeLong said that he is concerned that Lamont’s failure to adhere to promises made during budget negotiations last session could hinder effective policy making and bipartisanship in Hartford. Lamont’s proposal, DeLong said he believes, is the result of “self-imposed constraints” which artificially limit the state’s ability to invest in public education and early childhood care. 

DeLong said that he remains confident that the governor and General Assembly can come to a consensus which will provide the necessary funding for both services, but DeLong is adamant that the state’s spending cap should not unduly limit education funding this session.

“The spending cap was never designed to keep us from investing in our kids,” he told the News.

In a conversation with the CT Mirror, Lamont’s chief budget official, Jeffrey Beckham, indicated that funds would mostly be diverted from the $52 million dollars allocated for magnet and charter schools statewide for the next fiscal year.

While her union opposes increased funding for charter schools, Batteau said that she worries about the impact of funding cuts on teachers and students in the several magnet schools overseen by the New Haven Board of Education, whose teachers she represents. In particular, Batteau said she believes cuts to magnet programs could have an impact on attendance, a chief concern for the State Department of Education.

Batteau added that she would like to see increased funding for both K-12 and early childhood education, but that she resents Lamont’s attempt “to pit these two interests” against each other in the interests of “human-created fiscal guardrails,” a tactic she called “really problematic.” She said that she would like to see Lamont support an increase in taxes on the wealthy to support both public schools and early childhood care. 

Despite Lamont’s proposal, Batteau said she thinks that the General Assembly will increase support for teachers and students statewide in the 2024 session.

“We really want to look bigger than what we did last year, and certainly we can accept nothing less than what was approved last year,” Blatteau said.

The General Assembly will adjourn on May 8.

Correction, Feb. 9: A previous misspelling of Leslie Blatteau’s name has been corrected.