by Anna Elizabeth, CT Examiner
(December 11, 2020) A federal bill introduced by Congressman Joe Courtney to protect education funding for districts like Groton and Ledyard with children living on tribal lands and military bases was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 4.
“This is a big deal for us,” said Michael Graner, superintendent of Groton school district. “Groton has about 1000 military-dependent children who live in military housing, and because their parents don’t pay property taxes on their military housing, the town misses out on that revenue.”
The bipartisan “Impact Aid Coronavirus Relief Act” will allow school districts to receive the same federal Impact Aid as last year rather than risking the possibility of losing federal funds due to challenges with counting students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We get about $3,500 in Impact Aid for every child whose parent lives on federal property,” Graner said. “All told, it’s about $3.5 million, and our budget is about $77.5 million, so the town was in real jeopardy without this funding.”
When Graner realized the town could be at risk of losing the federal aid, he said he reached out to Courtney about finding a way to protect the funds. In a Congress that has struggled to pass any legislation, Courtney knew he would need bipartisan support. He said he sought out a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, who sits on the Education and Labor committee with Courtney and also has a large air force base in his district.
“Despite the normal narrative about Congress, sometimes the stars and the moons line up the right way in terms of common interests,” Courtney said, noting that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the bill’s Senate co-sponsors Tina Smith and John Thune all have military bases and tribal lands in the communities they represent.
Even for members of Congress without constituents living on federal land, Courtney said the case for protecting this funding was still clear.
“A targeted bill that deals with an issue that is pretty irresistible politically – making sure that children of our service members are going to have good schools – is a pretty compelling form of COVID relief,” Courtney said.
Graner said he waited with bated breath as the bill progressed through the chambers. Without the legislation, the school district would have had to submit their count of eligible students by January, which Graner says would have led to an undercount.
“Each fall, we send home eligibility forms asking parents to identify if they either live or work on federally impacted property,” Graner said. “We normally get most of the forms back quickly, but this year, we only got about 10 percent of the forms returned. With one third of kids not even coming to school because of hybrid schooling, it’s been harder to reach parents, and it’s much easier to overlook an email as opposed to a physical paper your child is bringing home.”
Courtney’s bill also benefits Ledyard, which receives about $1.6 million annually from the Impact Aid program – nearly three percent of the town’s budget. More than 30 percent of Ledyard students live on federally impacted land, with about 800 students living on the Navy Base and 140 students living on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, according to Jason Hartling, superintendent of Ledyard public schools.
“We could have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal aid,” Hartling said. “The pandemic has made it very challenging to get the documentation required. Families are incredibly busy and stressed during this time, so an envelope from the school district with a random form is pretty low on the list of priorities.”