As I ferry my daughter to day-care each morning — fighting the traffic, the clock, her latest cold, or mine — I consider myself lucky. We enjoy many advantages: a good town, schools services and opportunity.
And as a mom who has devoted her professional life to creating the housing people need but can’t now afford, I know just how lucky I am.
A state Superior Court judge heard final arguments last month on the limits of the state’s responsibility in financing the education of all students, including those with low incomes living largely in urban school districts. He is expected to rule this week.
In the trial’s final days, he publicly wrung his hands, wondering how far he should go, and how far the state Supreme Court might allow him to go, in ordering the legislature to spend more money.
The lawsuit, brought by 11 parents backed by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, was filed more than a decade ago. How Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher will rule is unclear and only one of several vital questions:
Is the state spending enough on education now? Are those dollars being equitably distributed? Can the state afford to spend more? What are the limits to such a court order?
And how will the answers to those questions ultimately be impacted by a new federal lawsuit brought by a California educational advocacy group, which seeks to foster educational equity for “inner-city students” by upending state limits on new magnet and charter schools and the Open Choice program’s suburban education spots for city students.
Stuck in traffic on Rt. 2 last week, I checked the rear-view mirror for my little girl and remembered the message Harvard professor Robert Putnam brought to Hartford when he spoke here this summer: That my Emilia is not my only child, that all children are my kids or, as Putnam says in his new book, “Our Kids.”
For while I can afford to live in a wealthy town — with smaller class sizes, more experienced teachers and many resources – Putnam says many children suffer because they were born to parents who can’t afford to live in such a community.
Putnam argues that my child should be only half my concern. Whether all “our kids” can access such a resource-laden education is the other, equally important half for determining whether the American dream will persist. The research, from Montgomery County, MD to Mt. Laurel, NJ strongly indicates that children, and their parents, have better outcomes when they can live in those high-resource towns and access educational and other key resources.
Which brings us to one of Judge Moukawsher’s concerns. How can our state, our taxpayers, spend more to take care of all “our kids” when court decisions are already forcing the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars desegregating Hartford schools and caring for abused and neglected children?
As a mother, and a housing professional, I think I know one clear answer.
At the Partnership for Strong Communities, we say “a safe, affordable home is the foundation of opportunity.” Having enough choices of where to live allows parents to select the right school, neighborhood, job potential and array of services that work best for them and their children.
The problem is that only 31 of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns have a reasonable amount of affordable homes. So the choices for many low- and moderate-income families are too often limited to communities with overburdened schools, few jobs, fewer services and tax bases too stressed to finance necessary municipal resources, educational or otherwise.
As a result, the legislature has sought to send more aid to those overburdened districts, but there are issues with the funding formula that led Judge Moukawsher to wonder why, for instance, certain strapped municipalities’ funding was reduced last year while some wealthier suburbs’ was increased.
We believe that better housing policy can fix a large part of the educational funding problem. Creating more affordable homes in municipalities with high-resource schools, jobs and quality services will provide those families with more choices and help close the achievement gap. It could also provide opportunity – jobs, training, healthcare, childcare, fresh food and more – to every member of the household and, perhaps most significantly, offer social and recreational resources to children during the 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. part of the day, not just during school hours.
Equally important, allowing some low- and moderate-income households to choose higher-resource districts will allow the present or future level of state aid – housing, community development, transportation and education — to be more directly focused on the locations that really need it.
Not all households want to live in cities. But not all want to live in suburbs. Low- and moderate-income households deserve choices. There is little doubt that more aid to more burdened school districts can help. But the towns around the cities that do the heavy social lifting – by providing services for people who are experiencing homelessness or poverty or underemployment – can help, too. Maybe that means transferring some of their state education aid to the cities. Or maybe it just means that, using inclusionary zoning, they should welcome those from the cities who choose to live there by creating some affordable homes.
As Putnam says, I – and all of us – have a responsibility to seek the best, not only for the sweet children in our rearview mirrors each morning, but for all of “our kids” all across Connecticut, too.
Alicia Woodsby is the executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide housing policy organization devoted to preventing and ending homelessness, the creation of affordable homes and the development of strong neighborhoods.