Connecticut has spent over $50 million helping schools beef up security since 2013. Some of that money -- $3.2 million -- has gone to private schools, which are reimbursed at a higher rate than many public schools.
State lawmakers created the grant program after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook School to help public schools pay for security upgrades. The original law excluded private schools, so the Connecticut Federation of Catholic School Parents ran a successful legislative push to change that in 2014.
Anne Lamonica, associate director for education at the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said it's important that all children be kept safe.
"You know, it's a public safety issue," Lamonica said. "It's not an education issue. You wouldn't deny a fire department or ambulatory service to a church, or any school, I don't think."
The Connecticut Federation of Catholic School Parents became part of the Catholic Conference in 2015.
The state's security grant program basically refunds a school, funded by state-issued bonds, for a portion of approved security projects -- things like cameras or shatter-proof glass. For public schools, the portion they pay depends the wealth of the municipality -- schools in the poorest cities and towns are refunded at the highest rate, 80 percent. Many public schools get a lower rate -- some as low as 20 percent.
But all private schools are eligible to get the same rate -- half of their costs are reimbursed with state dollars.
In February, nearly $10 million in state money went out to schools across Connecticut for security projects. Eleven private schools got $1 million of it. But as many as 62 public schools from 20 towns got reimbursed at a lower rate than the private institutions, according to data from the state's Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which administers the grant program.
Jan Hochadel, president of AFT Connecticut, the state's second-largest teachers union, said this shouldn’t be happening.
"Our members have consistently opposed shifting the limited resources from Connecticut’s traditional neighborhood schools to the privately run institutions," Hochadel said, adding that public schools shouldn’t have to compete against private schools for money, especially when state resources are shrinking.
"Every student, every teacher, everybody that works in education should be safe," she said. "But I do feel that they can raise funds. They should be responsible for increasing their security through their own resources."
State Sen. John Fonfara, who represents Hartford, was one of several lawmakers who crafted the 2014 amendment that allowed private schools access to public money.
"We felt that it was important to not discriminate in terms of a child's life, where their parents choose to have them educated, given the tragedy at Sandy Hook," Fonfara said, adding that doesn't recall exactly why lawmakers gave private schools a flat 50 percent rate.
"I don't remember every nuance as to what the rationale was at that time," he said. "I'm sure it was given a lot of scrutiny."
He said the reason could be because there's a lot of information about how public schools are funded, so creating that scale was simple. Wealthy towns get less, poor towns get more. But figuring out a similar scale for private schools would have been more complicated.
"The value judgment was... to base it on a number, a percentage that would be objective across the board for private schools," Fonfara said.
In the recent funding round, a private school in Woodbridge got half of its $400,000 project paid for by the state. But a few miles away in Branford -- a town that's not quite as wealthy as Woodbridge -- it's getting refunded by only a third of its costs.
Lawmakers seemed to be aware that this would happen.
In the legislative record, Education Committee members noted that allowing private schools to access public money "results in a potential revenue loss to local and regional school districts." The amendment passed with only seven no votes.
Below is a portion of that discussion, with the relevant section highlighted.
Teachers union president Hochadel pointed out that there are many ways private schools can raise money. And most of those methods -- like raising student tuition or applying for certain grant programs -- aren’t available to public schools.