Home / Blog / With two major education bills, CT legislature puts focus on schools

With two major education bills, CT legislature puts focus on schools

Oct 13, 2023Oct 13, 2023

Lawmakers on Thursday drew their focus to education, passing expansive bills out of the House and Senate that address myriad issues related to school mental health, school climate, expulsions, air quality, special education, educational spending and English language learners.

The omnibus education bills, Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 6762, each passed their originating chambers and head next to the opposite chambers before going to the governor's office for Gov. Ned Lamont's signature.

"This is a good start, but for some structural changes that we need in this state, it goes deeper than this — much deeper," said Education Committee co-chair Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford. "Unfortunately, in this state, we have not provided opportunities for far too long for children who are Black, who are Brown, who are poor, who don't have options. … We have required them to attend schools that I won't put my child in, that you won't put your child in, but we make them go there."

The bills aim to help alleviate some of the effects of long-standing issues such as equity in education. Studies have shown that students of color often face educational disparities and disproportionately face harsher disciplinary actions such as expulsion or police involvement at school.

The Senate bill includes measures to push schools to examine expulsions and provide additional information about the educations of kids who get expelled to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted concerns for school-aged children. Near the end of 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about a national youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Further studies have shown that more children are struggling with depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

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The pandemic also brought to the forefront other school-related problems such as air quality in school buildings and the ways in which access to healthy food affects kids at school. Many children fell behind during the pandemic, and chronic absenteeism at school has increased in recent years.

"There is a depth, there is a rationale, there is an understanding, and there is a solution to the challenges that we’re facing in our state," said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. "This is a very comprehensive bill, and I’m proud to say this is Senate Bill 1 because this is one of the most important bills during this session that we will be talking about."

Debate stretched into the evening on Thursday. Republicans questioned several of the measures included in Senate Bill 1, particularly elements of the bill that deal with "school climate."

Senate Bill 1 would urge district staff to consider school climate — the quality of life at school, with particular focus on interpersonal relationships, goals and values within the district. It would ask districts to create committees to examine school climate and conduct surveys of students to learn more.

Republicans questioned what would be on the surveys and whether parents would be able to view the surveys. Some senators questioned whether the surveys would be appropriate for all ages of children.

"Certainly for younger-age students, I think that could be problematic," said Education Committee ranking member Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown.

McCrory told legislators that parents would be able to opt out of the survey on behalf of their children and would get information on the topics that would be covered in the survey.

Republicans also objected to the method of introducing the Senate bill — an amendment added dozens of sections to the original bill language. Some of the sections were concepts debated in other bills during the committee process.

"The bill that was filed today on transparency in education now has 87 sections and takes up 92 pages and a significant fiscal note change," said Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, of the changes the bill had undergone.

It's not abnormal at this point in the session for amendments to include big changes to the bill or to combine multiple concepts into one bill as lawmakers push to get votes on their bills before session ends, in less than a week.

During the last few days of session, the minority party also has more power as they can run out the clock with long debates and kill bills.

Senate Bill 1, made up of over 80 sections, targets dozens of educational issues across the state, including improving teacher diversity, healthier school meals, more wraparound services for students and their families who need better support in Alliance Districts — the state's lowest-performing districts — and creating a better way to track school expenditures.

The first section of the legislation looks at how schools use their funding and would create a chart of accounts where lawmakers could track how money is directly being spent on students. Section one of S.B. 1 was in the bill's original language and would help make education more transparent, lawmakers said earlier this session.

The legislation also creates a new requirement for local board of education members to undergo training once elected. School nurses would have to get additional professional development.

Alliance Districts would create improvement plans to apply for certain money from the state Department of Education. The districts could also expand programming offered through family resource centers.

The bill also creates a pilot program so a few of those districts can have a school meal program with healthier snacks. It would also expand the CT Grown for CT Kids program to provide more locally grown food to students.

Districts would prioritize teacher recruitment and hiring of more diverse educators through the Educator Apprenticeship Program Initiative and the development of the Aspiring Educator Diversity Scholarship Program.

All districts would have to "implement a comprehensive reading curriculum model or program" for pre-K to third graders. It would have schools expand workforce development skills training for students.

It includes measures to analyze and improve air quality in schools and offer support for mental health. These include heightened efforts to hire and retain mental health specialists, therapists and social workers at schools and analysis of issues such as bullying and mental health.

Districts would take measures to assess and improve school climate including establishing a school climate specialist and surveying students. They’d also adopt "restorative practices," meaning evidence-based ways to resolve non-violent conflict at schools without involving police.

In the House, lawmakers took up H.B. 6762, an omnibus bill incorporating half a dozen proposals heard and passed through the Education Committee this session. Components of the bill addressed early childhood, special education, career and technical education, standardized testing and services for multilingual parents.

The bill would raise per-child rates for early childhood education programs, known as "school readiness," by 16% to $10,500 beginning in fiscal year 2025. The increase would cost the Office of Early Childhood $15.5 million a year beginning in mid-2024, according to an analysis by the Office of Fiscal Analysis. It also waives some child care eligibility requirements for children experiencing homelessness.

Other provisions in the bill call on the Board of Education to audit state and local testing requirements and for the board of the state's Technical and Career Education System — which recently broke off as a separate government agency — to examine its programs to better align them to available technical careers in the state.

The legislation would also create two task forces: One would examine "funding, eligibility and delivery of special education," and the other would study "civics, citizenship, media literacy and American government" curriculum. Finally, the bill calls for the Board of Education to draft a "bill of rights" for non-English-speaking parents of school-age children.

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Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror's Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Baylor University.

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio's Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master's in journalism from the University of Southern California.

Debate Senate Bill 1 House Bill 6762