Connecticut Voices for Children works to ensure that all of the children in our state have a meaningful opportunity to develop to their full potential, regardless of race, family income or life circumstance. We advance this mission by advocating for wise public policies and strategic public investments. Working across issue areas, from early childhood development to state fiscal policy, we advocate for system-level changes that boost family economic success, nurture child health and development, advance equity in educational opportunity and prepare children for success.
Today Connecticut Voices for Children holds a unique place among nonprofits in the state. While other nonprofits conduct research on particular issues of concern, offer programs to address identified areas of need, and in some cases even advocate for change in particular budget priorities, only Connecticut Voices for Children offers a holistic approach to its broad mission to advance equity in opportunity for all children and families- so that all children have a meaningful chance to succeed. We strive to understand the large scale trends impacting children and families in Connecticut; share that information with decision-makers and stakeholders, and, ultimately, change policy and statewide investment strategies to create more equitable opportunity. Grounding our work in an analysis of economic, demographic and political trends, and in social science research on best practice policies and programs, we advocate for strategic investments in people, places, services and infrastructure to advance a more inclusive and more prosperous future.
Every child should be cherished. That simple idea drove four mothers to found Connecticut Voices for Children more than twenty years ago. The legacy of those four women is a highly respected child research and advocacy organization led by a diverse staff with experience in education, law, child development, health, youth development, and the state budget. Together we work to advance four broad outcomes: thriving families, educational opportunity, youth opportunity and value-driven state fiscal policy.
Our key accomplishments last year and our primary goals this year seek to protect the needs of our most vulnerable children and families- advocating for the protection of critical programs and the adoption of a balanced budget.
Thriving Families: A decade of advocacy led to a state earned income tax credit that now benefits more than 192,000 working families each year. Steadfast defense of the HUSKY health insurance program has protected the state’s largest and most important maternal and child health program from severe budget cuts. This year both programs are at risk; our advocacy brings forward solid research about the benefits and high return on these strategic investments.
Educational Success: Tireless advocacy based on our early childhood research helped catalyze new funding for early education programs for thousands of young children – funding now at risk as evidenced by closure of Care4Kids to most new families. Our education advocacy focuses on equity: both in terms of access to early care and in terms of K-12 education where the reality of long-term residential segregation challenges the moral and economic standing of our state.
Youth Opportunity: Over the past several years, our research on school disciplinary practices has revealed great disparity in the treatment of children of color, building momentum to end the “school to prison” pipeline. Continued work seeks to divert youth from the juvenile justice system, promoting alternatives to exclusionary discipline.
Strategic Investment: Our highly regarded analyses of fiscal policy have led to policy changes that increase transparency and accountability, and empowered organizations and individuals from around the state to understand and participate in the budget process. Coalition building and leadership have averted major cuts to services for families in past recessions and advanced tax equity.
The demand for our work and expertise is higher now than ever before. The state budget crisis means that colleagues, policymakers, foundations and elected leaders turn to us to map out the scope of the challenge and the likely consequences of different paths forward. Concern has only risen in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, as the threat of changes to core federal programs threatens long-stable revenue streams for the state. We are heartened that the immediate threats to the Affordable Care Act have abated in the wake of Congress’s failed attempt to “repeal and replace” it. However, threats to health coverage and other supports for low-income working families are likely to continue via federal administrative action, other Congressional initiatives, and the state budget squeeze. Our biggest challenge then is capacity. We work to meet the expectations of partners and funders in terms of essential analysis and advocacy while also being nimble enough to address emerging issues and needs. Given the realities of finite work capacity, we endeavor to choose our priorities carefully to advance the well-being and development of Connecticut’s children. Nonetheless, balancing our pledged work with new and emerging issues remains an ongoing challenge.
Connecticut Voices for Children has embraced a sweeping
vision for our state: that all Connecticut children will have the opportunity
to achieve their full potential, regardless of race, income or zip code.
What would it mean if all children in Connecticut were able to realize their full potential? It would mean that all youth would graduate from high school ready for success in college or career. It would mean that employers could count on a well-trained workforce. It would mean a dramatic reduction in today’s achievement gap, a sharp decrease in child poverty, an increase in median wages, and a healthier economy fueled by a growing middle class with increased demand for products and services. By making a commitment to equitable opportunity for all children, our state could advance our overall economic standing at the same time as it advanced quality of life and child and family well-being.
Change does not happen overnight. The growing inequality in opportunity in our state has taken generations to create, and will take at least a generation to fix. But Connecticut Voices for Children is leading the way in our state in forging a research based, child and family centered path toward equal opportunity.
This is not the first time Connecticut Voices for Children has broken new ground in its research and advocacy. I first learned about the pioneering work of Connecticut Voices for Children sixteen years ago while serving as executive director of the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire- a sister organization of Connecticut Voices with a similar vision and mission. Under the leadership of founding executive director Shelley Geballe, Connecticut Voices was leading the national child advocacy community in integrating social policy expertise with tax and budget analysis to make the case for increased investments in children and families as integral to strategic economic planning and development. Over the years, I held up the work of Connecticut Voices as the “gold standard” in child advocacy, urging my board to follow its lead in the development of fiscal analytical capacity and in the commitment to building the next generation of child advocates.
Today, as the only research-based, statewide, multi-issue child advocacy organization in Connecticut, we play a unique role in explaining how issues, such as poverty, crime, underachievement, unemployment, and family dynamics not only impact healthy child development but also limit the potential of the entire state. At a time of declining social capital and community engagement, we seek to explain the reality of our social and economic interdependence, providing the data, research and public will building necessary for a better tomorrow.
I have had the pleasure and privilege to serve as a board member of Connecticut Voices for Children since its infancy in 1999 and as Chair of the Board since 2012. From its inception, Connecticut Voices has been committed to being an independent voice for the children of Connecticut. Conceptualized as a non-partisan think tank, Voices has always relied upon a sound, data informed approach to its advocacy positions. For more than twenty years Connecticut Voices has developed thoughtful, concise data driven position papers and analyses for legislators, community leaders, and concerned citizens which have influenced decision making on many of the legislative issues which affect the lives of Connecticut’s children and families.
From the first legislative campaign on behalf of subsidized guardianships for grandparents and other relatives caring for children whose parents were unable to provide appropriate care to current campaigns focused on the revenue side of the budget, income equality and its effect on public education, Connecticut Voices has been the leading child advocacy organization in the state. Current issues which Connecticut Voices has championed include the plight of children aging out of foster care, equitable access to preschool and early childhood education, and the need for strong schools which can prepare children for college as well as for the vocations which will assure them financial viability and create a pool of employment-ready individuals in the state. Our approach is outcome based, with measurable goals in key issue areas. We are not afraid to evaluate our effectiveness.
I am proud of these and other issues which Connecticut Voices has consistently raised. I am proud of its unabashed willingness to speak for the needs and interests of all of Connecticut’s children, and promote positions which stimulate discussion and generate passionate response. I am proud of Connecticut Voices’ leadership and the wonderful work being done by its staff, from its Director, Ellen Shemitz, JD, to its accomplished professionals and its very capable policy fellows.
Although its work focuses on Connecticut and its children, the work of Connecticut Voices is nationally recognized. Connecticut Voices serves as a model for advocates in many states which lag behind us in providing opportunities and services for their children. In the current political environment in which many of the values cherished by organizations such as Connecticut Voices are being threatened by government deconstruction and loss of funding, all voices count. Connecticut Voices Is uniquely positioned to speak not only with passion but also with the strength of careful analysis to fully justify and support its policy goals. We all stand to gain from these efforts.
As a statewide organization, we work on systems change to
benefit all of the 1,048,006 children and youth ages 0 to 24 across
Connecticut, including 247,576 in the Greater New Haven region, with the
greatest impact felt by those whose opportunities are limited by virtue of
family income, race, ethnicity, or zip code.
Using family income as a proxy for limited opportunity, our work in the
Greater New Haven region most directly supports 85,384 children and youth
living below 200% of the FPL.
In defining low-income, we have used 200% of the federal poverty line, based on the recognition that the federal poverty level ($23,850 for a family of four in 2014) itself dramatically undercounts families in need. Even this definition may not fully capture the growing costs of a family’s most basic needs. The Connecticut Self-Sufficiency Standard estimated the income required for a family of four (two adults, one preschooler, and one school age child) to be self-sufficient in 2015 as $78,467 (Connecticut’s Self-Sufficiency Standard).
Data on family income is not, of course, the only characteristic of our target population. Opportunity for children and youth is shaped within the context of multiple community, peer, and educational influences. These influences vary greatly across Connecticut and within the greater New Haven region, resulting in vast disparities in opportunity.
Across our communities, families are not able to access early childhood care and education, including infant and toddler care equally. This exacerbates employment and income disparities when working parents are forced to forgo employment in order to watch their children. We know that there are low-income families living in even the wealthiest cities and towns: indeed, families in every single one of the towns in the greater New Haven region qualified for the Care4Kids subsidy in 2016. Our recent publication about the closure of the Care4Kids child care subsidy to new families showed that in 40% of New Haven area towns (8), Care4Kids is the only form of state-subsidized early care and education. Because of the budget deficit and the closure of the program to new families, low-income families in these towns applying for subsidies today have nowhere to turn for state support of quality, affordable care for their young children. Moreover, access to quality early childhood education for preschoolers differs dramatically within the greater New Haven region. For example, in Woodbridge, where just 3% of children under 5 live in poverty, more than 82% of children attended preschool before entering kindergarten in 2014. In contrast, in West Haven, where 20% of children under 5 live in poverty, only 58% of children attended preschool for even a single day that year. Within the K-12 schools, educational disparities that result from unequal access to early childhood education are exacerbated by widely disparate school funding. For instance, per-pupil funding in the Woodbridge public elementary schools for the 2015-16 school year was $16,488, as compared with only $13,592 in West Haven. Not surprisingly, the four year graduation rate in Woodbridge was over 96% for 2014-15 (the most recent year for which that data is available) in contrast with 78 % in West Haven.
We see the same disparities in our work on youth development and youth unemployment. The rate of youth who drop out of school and do not find employment—disconnected youth—is highly correlated to suspension rates. Communities where schools use more exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions, are also more likely to have higher rates of youth that disconnect from school and employment. Suspension rates are also a unique predictor of juvenile arrests. Even when adjusting for other factors that influence involvement with the justice system, such as poverty and residential segregation, suspension rates have a strong and positive correlation with rates of juvenile arrests. These findings in Connecticut are consistent with national studies showing that youth are more likely to be arrested on days they are suspended from school, often as a result of “zero tolerance” or “three strikes and you’re out” policies. Connecting this research with local data, we find that where a youth grows up in the greater New Haven region has a significant impact on his or her likelihood of success. Compare for example the 2014-15 school-year suspension rate of 0.4% Woodbridge with that in West Haven of 6.9%. These disparities in opportunity present an enormous challenge not just for the most affected children and families, but for the state as a whole: Data Haven predicts that 70 percent of jobs in the state will require a post-secondary degree by 2020. We must invest in all children if we as a state and as a community are going to be able to provide the prepared workforce necessary to support a prosperous and inclusive economy.
Thousands more children have access to the health care they need as a result of our research and advocacy. Connecticut Voices’ analysis of HUSKY enrollment data found that babies turning one and teens turning 18 were more likely than children of other ages to lose coverage over the course of a year. As a direct result of our work and recommendations, the state made changes to its procedures. Follow-up research has found that thousands more children are retaining their health coverage after these changes were implemented.
Connecticut Voices promotes public policies and investments that support an integrated state-wide system of high-quality early care and education and high quality public education for all students, preparing them for success in higher education, career and life.
Our early education work is focused on ensuring all young children have access to high-quality caregiving environments that are developmentally appropriate, culturally sensitive, and that recognize parents as children’s first and most important teachers.
Our K-12 education work raises awareness of the income and racial/ethnic opportunity gaps affecting children and youth throughout the state. We work to promote both short and long term policies that will address these issues to help ensure that all Connecticut children graduate high school ready for college and career.
Connecticut has begun the process of transforming its early care and education system to become more streamlined, integrated, and accessible to families. The state’s early care and education system has long suffered from a lack of coordination and planning. Child care providers have struggled to manage multiple funding streams, regulations, and assessment measures. Parents have struggled to understand and navigate a confusing and often overlapping array of programs and eligibility requirements. Through our research and advocacy work, we have drawn attention to the need for a more unified and integrated approach to educating our youngest children. Policymakers established an Office of Early Childhood, charged with coordinating the state’s early care programs and improving access for children and parents. Within the K-12 system, our work has shed light on the correlation between school funding, relative educational opportunity and actual student achievement.
Working across issue areas, Connecticut Voices seeks to improve and broaden opportunities for all youth. Our child welfare work is focused on supporting investments in families and communities to prevent neglect and abuse, and working to improve services and outcomes for children placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families. Our juvenile justice work seeks to reduce the number of children and youth involved in the juvenile justice system, to improve outcomes for children and youth who are court involved, and to reduce inequities in the juvenile justice system attributable to poverty and race.
Only six years ago, in 2011-12, students were suspended or expelled from public schools in the state 120,000 times, but by 2015-16 that number had fallen to 92,000. Our work raising awareness of these numbers and highlighting the racial and economic disparities within these trends led to legislation tempering the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, defining school-based arrests, and limiting the use of these methods for the youngest children. Through our advocacy for state-funded programs that seek to decrease exclusionary discipline, student arrests, and juvenile justice system involvement, successful programs have been able to make significant reductions in the use of exclusionary discipline and juvenile justice involvement in our state. As it stands now, schools are relying on exclusionary discipline less and students are less frequently being pushed out of class, missing class time or being swept into the juvenile justice system.
Connecticut Voices for Children promotes fiscal policy that supports adequate investment in child and family opportunity by advancing equity, transparency and accountability in the state’s budget process. Our annual State Budget Forum and our highly regarded analyses of fiscal policy have led to policy changes that increase transparency and accountability and empowered organizations and individuals from around the state to understand and participate in the budget process. Coalition building and leadership have averted major cuts to services for families in past recessions and advanced tax equity, including increased tax progressivity, closing of corporate tax loopholes, and repeal of unfair tax exemptions.
We are particularly proud of our successful efforts to promote revenue-raising policies to ameliorate the state’s large deficit and prevent drastic cuts to services that support the most vulnerable children and families. For instance, in 2015, lawmakers adopted several of our recommendations, including the combined reporting of corporate income, a more progressive personal income tax, and an elevated cigarette tax. In addition, we led a successful effort to re-categorize unfunded pension liability as debt that need not be considered in calculating allowable spending under the state spending cap. The success of that effort freed hundreds of million dollars for spending on critical human services.
Connecticut Voices for Children is a state-wide research and advocacy organization with a big vision: that all children in our state can and should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of their race, their ethnicity or where they live.
We bring together researchers, policymakers, community leaders and in some cases youth themselves to shine a spotlight on unmet needs, identify responsive public policies and advocate for strategic public investments that will dismantle systemic barriers and build pathways to success. Our work cuts across academic disciplines, social policies, and funding silos, providing research and advocacy that informs, engages and builds demand for change.
In Connecticut today, too many families struggle to meet basic needs – challenged by the twin forces of economic change and state budgetary challenges. Today the State of Connecticut faces a structural budget deficit driven by spiraling fixed costs, exacerbated by decreased revenue (related to the longer term economic trends) and resolved in large part by cutting back on essential services that directly impact children. As a result, the total state investment in programs that benefit children and families, including early childhood education, K-12 education, health care, and poverty reduction measures has decreased from over 40 percent twenty years ago to less than 30 percent.
Across all of our work to close opportunity gaps for families, we actively foster and rely upon on the next generation of policy leadership. We promote leadership development through our rotating two-year policy fellow program. This program is integral to our capacity to conduct research, engage with coalition and partners, produce reports, and achieve our significant public policy successes. We engage our associate policy fellows in all aspects of our work, empowering them to gain expertise in substantive areas such that they can become an independent resource for other staff and the public, including collaborative partners and policy makers.
Ellen Shemitz is a nationally recognized advocate with over 25 years of public and private sector experience advancing social and civil justice through research, policy analysis, advocacy, litigation and public engagement. Prior to joining Connecticut Voices for Children, Ellen lived and worked on behalf of children in Concord, New Hampshire, serving in government, private practice and the nonprofit community. Beginning in 1998, she led the state’s sister-organization to Connecticut Voices for Children, serving as President of the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire for nearly a decade. While leading the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire, she earned the Outstanding Advocate Award from the National Association of School Psychologists in 2003; served as the National Chair of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Steering Committee in 2006-2007; and founded the New Hampshire Child Advocacy Network, a collaborative association of more than 200 child-serving organizations. From 2008 through 2012, Ellen led the New Hampshire Association for Justice, a professional association working to promote civil justice and constitutional rights. Since joining Connecticut Voices for Children, Ellen has worked to prioritize issues of race, equity and opportunity, taking a broad systems approach that considers matters ranging from jobs and the economy to education and workforce preparation. From 2013-2015, she served as the founding Board Chair of the Partnership for America’s Children, helping to create a national network of state and local child advocacy organizations working to improve policies at the local, state and national level. She currently serves on the Connecticut General Assembly Commission on Economic Competitiveness. Ellen received her undergraduate degree from Yale University (1983) and her law degree from the Yale Law School (1987).
Connecticut Voices works collaboratively with a variety of partners, sharing data, seeking input from service providers, convening likely and unlikely allies to create consensus, and engaging disparate voices in our direct advocacy. While a full listing of partners would far exceed the space limits here, the list includes: Behavioral Health Partnership Oversight Council; Reaching Home Partnership for Strong Communities; Department of Children and Families Youth Advisory Boards; Better Choices for Connecticut; Covering Connecticut’s Kids and Families; Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance; Connecticut Fair Housing; Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance; Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Council; Connecticut Parent Power; Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative at the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut; Medicaid Strategy Group; Oversight Council of Medical Assistance Program; New England Alliance for Children's Health; New Haven Early Childhood Education Council; Partnership for America’s Children; Center for Budget and Policy Priorities; the State Priorities Partnership; Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy; Partnership for Strong Communities; and the Yale School of Law, Legislative Advocacy Clinic.
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