Assembly Must Beware Of Unfunded Mandates

Assembly Must Beware Of Unfunded Mandates

An editorial from Hearst Connecticut Media:


The testimony offered on behalf of parents who say they have been shut out of key decisions involving their children over language barriers has been heartbreaking. No parent should wonder what is happening because a school can’t accommodate their needs.

Known as a Parents’ Bill of Rights, legislation before the Connecticut General Assembly would guarantee support for non-English-speaking parents of school-age children in the state. The Education Committee recently heard from a variety of interested parties who say the law is necessary, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Parents can’t be shut out.

Gov. Ned Lamont recently announced his support for such a measure. “I believe there is nothing more important to a child’s education than an engaged and supportive parent or guardian, and the English Learners’ Bill of Rights will guarantee that they have the information necessary to do so,” Lamont said.

It should be an easy call. There’s just one potential hang-up, something seen all too often in well-meaning legislation that emerges from the Hartford lawmaking machine. Who’s going to pay for it?

School districts, after all, don’t shut out parents out of mendacity or ignorance. Translators cost money, and we’re not talking about only one language. Spanish is the most common second language spoken in Connecticut schools, but some districts have children from many other backgrounds who would need accommodation. In one measure, a Bridgeport school reported more than 20 distinct languages spoken at the homes of students in a single school year.

Who’s going to accommodate all that? It’s not a question of whether it’s a good idea. It’s more than that — it’s a necessity. But the state has long specialized in what municipalities call unfunded mandates. The legislature passes a bill saying towns or school districts have to do something, but there is no money provided to make it happen. That puts the burden on local districts.

It’s no coincidence that the school systems in greatest need of translators also face the greatest financial strain. And it’s not the only issue before the Assembly that presents such a problem. Lawmakers are also considering a bill to expand benefits for firefighters who develop cancer from being on the scene where toxic substances burn. Again, it’s something that should be done. But cost is a question.

Municipal advocates routinely argue that well-intentioned laws are too often put in the hands of municipalities to fund, which leads to property tax increases, because property taxes are by far the largest source of local government funding.

But by doing it this way, state government can pat itself on the back for doing good deeds while skirting the blame for paying for it — the towns and cities handle that part.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has put out a warning on property taxes. Its leadership says because of actions at the General Assembly, whatever savings people are likely to see from income tax cuts this year may well be eaten up by property tax increases at the local level.

The warning should be heeded. The money has to come from somewhere.


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