Zachary Suri, Contributing Photographer

HARTFORD — Room 2D at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford was standing room only on Thursday afternoon. Hundreds of people had gathered for a press conference, flanked by signs reading “Keep the promise to CT’s students” and “Fairly fund all students.”

The press conference, hosted by Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Education Committee, was called in response to Governor Ned Lamont’s proposal to redirect more than $39 million in funding for charter, magnet and technical schools allocated last session. The funds would help pay for a five-year plan restructuring of childcare in the state, developed by a “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts and stakeholders ordered by Lamont last year. Lamont’s proposal was introduced as HB 5050 on Feb. 8.

“Early childhood deserves the same respect and commitment this year. We can and we should do both,” Currey said. “The attempt to pit us against each other is not the path forward.”

In Connecticut, the state budget is passed on a biennial basis, with a new budget every two years and minor adjustments in the intervening session. Last year, the General Assembly passed a budget for 2024 and 2025 that included a historic $150 million in investments for K-12 education statewide. According to Lisa Hammersley, executive director of the School + State Finance Project, this was the second-largest allocation in state history. Rep. Currey played a key role in negotiations with the governor to secure these commitments.

In a recent interview with the News, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker criticized the proposal, saying that educational spending should be increased, not decreased.

Legislators invited students in affected programs, advocates and faith leaders from across the state to attend the press conference. And they did. Speakers were flanked by a sea of dark blue Future Farmers of America uniforms worn by students in agricultural programs whose funding would be cut by the Governor’s proposal.

Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, was one of the first to speak. She emphasized the impact of cuts to magnet and charter programs on her district. Without the funds to sustain these programs, Torres-Rodriguez told the crowd, districts like hers would be forced to pay other districts to educate their students. 

“Historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities should no longer face the financial burden of paying other school districts to educate your children,” she said.

Torres-Rodriguez estimates that the governor’s proposal would cost Hartford Public Schools around $11 million. These cuts would impact her district’s finances long-term. 

Earlier this month, the Governor began to release the details of his proposed adjustments to the biennial budget for this year’s session. In a press release on Thursday, Lamont defended his proposal, emphasizing the importance of a strong early childcare system in supporting K-12 education.

“The ability of our K-12 education system to succeed depends in great part on the success of our early childhood education system,” Lamont said. 

A number of child-care advocates spoke in opposition to the governor’s proposal on Thursday. 

Eva Bermúdez Zimmerman, coalition director for Child Care for Connecticut’s Future, voiced her frustration with the governor’s proposal. She emphasized the need for more early childcare funding and thanked the governor for his attention to the issue, but insisted that early childcare advocates must stand in “solidarity” with K-12 educators.

“People outside of this room are telling us, ‘Take the money. Run.’ Where does it matter where it’s coming from? It’s more money for early care. Isn’t that what you want?” Bermúdez Zimmerman said. “Not if it’s on the backs of other children, not if it’s on the backs of teachers who have sacrificed for the K-12 system,” Bermúdez Zimmerman said.

Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, chair of the Early Childhood Caucus, reiterated her support for early childhood programs, but insisted that early childhood and K-12 education, both critical for the state’s future, cannot be “pitted against each other.”

Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, a major teachers’ union in the state, also spoke in opposition to the governor’s proposal. She highlighted the critical role that educators play in their students’ lives and educational trajectories, even as Connecticut teachers are paid low wages and expected to provide many of their own classroom supplies. 

Dias urged a new approach to education funding in the state.

“Education is not some liability that we are saddled with, this horrible obligation that we have to struggle to find a way to fund,” Dias said. “It is the anchor for everything that is potentially possible in the state of Connecticut.”

Leonard Lockhart, president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, expressed grave concerns about the financial stability of the state’s education system and the “difficult decisions” facing school districts without the funds allocated in 2023.

Lockhart urged Lamont and the legislature to ensure that “promises made are promises kept, and we can safely support every single child within the state of Connecticut.”

GOP legislators also criticized Lamont’s proposals. Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown, ranking member of the Education Committee, and Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, echoed the sentiments of their Democratic counterparts. 

Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, co-chair of the Education Committee, stressed the need to continue supporting magnet, charter and technical programs statewide. These programs are critical for the stability of families and school districts, he told the crowd.

McCrory emphasized the state’s responsibility to guarantee accessible public education to all young people in Connecticut. Municipalities, he argued, are too often asked to fill in funding gaps and address achievement concerns better addressed with state funds.

McCrory thanked those gathered and urged them to continue their work.

“Thank you for forcing us to have this conversation. Thank you for pushing. Don’t back down. Our children, our families depend upon us,” he said.

The Connecticut General Assembly is in session until May 8.