HARTFORD — State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, said the 2023 legislative session produced the “most aggressive and successful legislation around education in years,” but the Education Committee co-chair said there’s still much to do this year.
Several major bills last year tackled dozens of education-related issues, from combating bullying and teacher recruitment to initiating a comprehensive reading curriculum model for pre-K through third grade.
On Tuesday, Currey discussed his hopes for the 2024 legislative session — kicking off on Feb. 7. And, in an interview with CT Examiner, he discussed a variety of topics including addressing universal pre-k, the effects of COVID-19 and bullying.
For Currey, education “is simply the foundation for everything. If we don’t provide the necessary attention and resources and nurture our education systems, we will ultimately see the negative impacts and outcomes.”
Currey, 44, has represented East Hartford and Manchester in the state Legislature since 2015, the same year he became a member of the Education Committee. In 2023, he became the House chair of the committee, while State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Windsor is the Senate chair.
Currey, a former East Hartford Board of Education chairperson, said he became passionate about education due to his parents, several teachers who guided him in school, and his own public education in East Hartford.
Currey’s father was an East Hartford school board member decades ago; his mother was a former state representative from the city and also served as commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Human Services and the State Department of Agriculture. Currey said his fourth, sixth grade and elementary music teachers had a huge impact on him and “who I credit a lot with who I am today.”
Currey, one of four openly gay lawmakers in the state Legislature, said he was bullied in middle school because he did not like the activities as other boys.
Though Currey said he didn’t come out as gay until after high school, he said he knew of no other fellow gay students in middle school and only one other gay student in high school.
“I wasn’t your typical boy, wanting to get out and go on a football field,” he said. “I took dance lessons, I was a singer. But I think those experiences are what stayed with me now, and which is why I work so hard to make sure that all students have the ability to go to school and feel safe.”
Currey has been a champion of the LGBTQ+ community in the legislature, supporting the expansion of LGBTQ+ youth access to HIV prevention medicine and creating an LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network.
In the 2023 session, Currey said lawmakers “did a complete overhaul of our bullying statutes. For the last 20 years, the language that we had simply has not worked and it’s not just a Connecticut issue. This is nationally. Nobody’s statutes have worked.”
The anti-bullying bills approved last year “are very robust and transformative” he said. The legislation calls for school climate surveys, developed with input from parents, students and other stakeholders.
“Getting the right questions and getting those answers are what is going to truly help a school and a district know what the issues are,” Currey said. “The problem now is that some districts are shying away from asking the real questions. And often those real questions have to do with the LGBTQ community. People cannot pretend that the LGBTQ community does not exist within the school system. There are additional challenges and obstacles that those [gay] students face that need to be addressed, and you do not know what they are unless you ask.”
Of all of the provisions approved in 2023, Currey said he’s most proud of one which adds $150 million to the $90 million already approved for education cost sharing in school districts.
“It’s a historic moment for the state. I have been working since my time on the [East Hartford] Board of Education to fix the disjointed and confusing education funding system,” he said.
As it relates to early childhood education, Currey said, “in a perfect world, we would have every eligible student in a zero to five classroom.”
A recently named Blue Ribbon Panel has been tasked to study the issue, he said, “but it’s not something that is going to be solved in one session. But it is something that has to be fixed sooner than later.”
Currey said he favors universal pre-K, similar to what was implemented several years ago in New York City.
Asked whether he thought Connecticut would enact universal pre-K in the next decade, Currey said, “People have to be willing to prioritize education, first and foremost. “
Currey added that he was heartened that leaders from both sides of the aisle identified education as a top priority.
“I will say that this last  session started off differently than any other session that I’ve seen,” he said. “Every leader of every caucus got up and said that education was a top priority. Every leader [of both parties] got up and said that; it really sets a path forward around education. We are hoping that everybody is able to jump on board and continue the momentum. And, in this session, hopefully help to prioritize early learning opportunities.”
There are many education-related issues that need addressing in Connecticut, but none more so than the teacher shortage plaguing the state, Currey said.
According to state data, there are teacher shortages for the 2023-24 school year in bilingual education, history and social studies, mathematics, special education and science. There’s also a shortage of school psychologists and speech and language pathologists in Connecticut’s 33 lowest-performing districts.
“We have a teaching shortage issue — that is nothing new. It’s not getting enough traction and attention that it deserves,” Currey said, adding that the state recently convened the Teacher Certification Council to address the certification process.
“We have not really taken a deep dive and look into our certification process in the last 30 years,” Currey said.
Currey said he’s looking forward to the 30-member council’s recommendations, saying he hopes they can streamline the process to become a teacher while, at the same time, not watering down the qualifications.
One example of progress being made on the teacher shortage dilemma, Currey said, is that Connecticut now has reciprocity agreements with many states.
“We are opening that tent a little wider to try and capture as many people [to become teachers] as we possibly can,” he said.
Currey also said Connecticut has some of the greatest public schools in the country, “but we have one of the worst public school systems, and the gap in resources in proficiency rates is unacceptable.”
He said more affluent communities like Greenwich, Darien and Westport continue to spend more funding and resources over urban districts like Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury, something he said needs to change.
Currey said affluent school districts also have “more course opportunities, more athletic opportunities, more extracurricular opportunities, more opportunities for everything.”
The coronavirus pandemic also played a part in exacerbating the existing problem of disparities within the school districts, he said, but warned that the pandemic should not be used as a crutch.
“I don’t think that people should actually be referencing the pandemic anymore. … It would be irresponsible of me to say, ‘No, it didn’t have an impact,’’ but it can’t be something that we use as a crutch to say that we were only doing so well or not so well because of that,” Currey said. “We have to move past that and recognize that we are not successful.”
Aside from money, another answer to helping students perform better comes from parents, he said.
“You hear about parental rights, parents will always have rights. But it’s about parental engagement, and parental responsibility, and how that directly impacts where a student comes in … and how successful they are throughout their time within our public school systems,” Currey said. “We have to figure out a way of getting at these districts that continue to find themselves with lower performing students.”
On other education issues, Currey said communities that want charter schools should decide whether they get one — not the state. He cited recent controversies in Middletown and Danbury, noting that there hasn’t been a new charter school in Connecticut since 2015.
Despite the state Department of Education approving a charter school for Danbury, that city’s state delegation has opposed the school, which requires the assent of the legislature.
“I think first it’s important to say that when we talk about charter schools, we are talking about public schools,” Currey said. “Public schools in Connecticut are your neighborhoods; public schools are also your magnet schools. And public schools are also your charter schools. We in Connecticut have established that we have a system of choice. … If the city [Danbury] so deems it necessary that this is the direction that they feel they need to go, then that is a conversation that Danbury residents [should be a part of].”
As Education Committee co-chair, Currey said he makes time to visit as many schools throughout the state as he can, noting he visited about 25 last year.
“It’s important to get a feel for what people are thinking and to get out from under the dome and actually know what is happening,” he said. “Sometimes legislators, a lot of them, will use their social media [pages] for this, but I’ve specifically said this is not meant to be a press junket or any sort of quick photo opportunity as that lessens the visit.”
During those visits, Currey concluded that educators care about being respected and trusted to do their jobs, and that students want more opportunities.
“Students want to be their best and be better prepared when they step out of the halls of our public school systems,” he said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Currey talked about addressing universal pre-K, the effects of COVID-19 and education cost sharing in the coming session. Currey did discuss these issues with CT Examiner but not in reference to the coming session. This story has been updated.
Currey’s mother was a commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Human Services and also the State Department of Agriculture — the latter Currey asked to be added.