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School boards group eyes equity, social-emotional needs and special education as legislative priorities

This is the time of year that the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education is particularly focused on legislative advocacy, but with the pandemic, the group doesn't have many issues this year.

CABE has three main priorities this session: Supporting diversity, equity and inclusion; addressing learning gaps and social-emotional needs districts are seeing from the pandemic, and getting more state and federal support for special education costs.

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel, said it's too soon to say what bills CABE will support or oppose, considering submitted bills are currently placeholders that haven't been fleshed out yet. But she said the organization hopes "to not get prescriptive mandates on districts at a time when they need to be flexible to meet the needs of the students."

McCarthy, CABE Executive Director Robert Rader, and CABE board President Donald Harris spoke about their priorities Thursday afternoon in a virtual meeting with The Day Editorial Board.

On the first priority, Harris noted that CABE has had a diversity, equity and inclusion committee for about four years.

After addressing the hate crime against New London Board of Education President Regina Mosley and the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he commented, "I have good hopes, especially after the inauguration yesterday, that we may be able to move forward in a positive vein and maybe get somewhere."

A specific DEI priority is minority teacher recruitment, with Harris commenting that it's important for students "to be around people that look like them, and say, 'I can aspire to that, too." McCarthy said studies show that students' performance and motivation increases when they have one or more teachers that look like them.

The CABE representatives spoke about the many educational challenges of the pandemic, such as low engagement among students, not enough substitute teachers, lack of student access to computers, and high absenteeism rates. They're also advocating to get educators vaccinated.

Harris said of students, "I want them back to school, but easier said than done." McCarthy thinks that for months to come, decisions on how much students can be physically in school will continue to be made on a local basis.

For parents who aren't able to work from home but have kids in remote learning part of the time, McCarthy said some kids have been able to go to community spaces, such as a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club, where they have internet access and adult supervision.

She said that ideally, whenever schools return fully in-person, they will have the resources to do individualized assessments on the learning gaps that have emerged.

She hopes that with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, as chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations and Connecticut's Miguel Cardona as President Joe Biden's secretary of education, the state's public schools will "be in a better place than we have been in a while, in terms of federal support."

She said for special education costs, CABE is asking for support from both the federal and state governments.

CABE also is pushing for the removal of the $140 million cap on the Special Education Excess Cost grant. Through this grant, the state reimburses districts for high special education costs but the funding is limited by statute, meaning districts don't get reimbursed at 100%.

e.moser@theday.com

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