Talk about Connecticut’s educational inequity, but no action

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A high school classroom in Bridgeport.

“Equity is great to talk about until someone has to give up something.”

These are the words of East Hartford’s Superintendent Nathan Quesnel, which I recently encountered in former East Hartford student Lara N. Dotson-Renta’s piece in The Atlantic. In her piece she chronicles student stories, discussing how the district deals with inequitable funding.

Quesnel’s quote, in particular, struck me because it perfectly encapsulates the situation here in Connecticut.

For all the talk of consensus after Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s scathing 90-page ruling, neither state Republicans or Democrats included meaningful reform of the Education Cost Sharing Grant (ECS), the main grant the state uses to distribute school funding, in their proposed budget plans this year.

The state legislature has paid lip service to education funding reform for years.

Even the calls to establish a task force to study education spending is history repeating itself. There were task forces in 2013 and 2006 that looked at funding equity. Both times recommendations were never fully implemented.

Why can’t we figure this out?

I was recently at a national summit for bloggers who write about education advocacy. Many of them were surprised that someone from Connecticut had things to write about.

What could possibly be wrong with Connecticut schools? Aren’t you living in the wealthiest state in the country? How have they not figured this out?

My answer every time: Connecticut’s issue is that we’re deeply divided. And that’s not an easy problem to grapple with because education is only one piece of the puzzle.

Going back to Superintendent Quesnel’s words, this is why change has been difficult. The power in the state is held by the suburbs, but those towns are so entirely disconnected from the cities it’s like living in two different worlds.

Connecticut is home to four of the top 25 wealthiest Zip Codes in the country. Many of the state’s city centers are teetering on bankruptcy; racially isolated, highly-taxed and property poor.

This didn’t happen overnight. State and national public policy aided in the inequity that filters down into our school system.

Take Hartford, for example: 51 percent of Hartford Public School students remain in under-resourced, hyper-segregated schools.

Part of the problem is that the state stopped investing in new magnet and charter schools seats, limiting the number of seats accessible to students, but that’s not the only reason things haven’t panned out in Harford.

Lack of wise investment in schools is part of the problem, and it should be part of the solution, but at the root of why Hartford schools continue to be segregated, is the fact that our cities also remain largely segregated, both by race and income.

We aren’t being honest.

To illustrate just how tone-deaf we are as a state, back in February, residents of Westport were sent into hysterics over an essay contest that asked students to discuss white privilege.

The students, to their credit, had zero issue with the essay topic, but the responses from adults made it into national headlines. One resident angrily commented, “it’s an open town… There are no barricades here. Nobody says if you’re black or whatever, you can’t move here.”

Ninety-three percent of Westport residents are white and the median family income weighs in at around $160,000. There are plenty of barricades to entrance into Westport and its top-tier schools.

The issues facing a place like Hartford are complicated, but decades of housing discrimination, state tax policy that favors the rich and white flight all factor into why the city and their school system is the way it is.

Putting our heads in the sand to this fact is part of the reason we never fix anything. It’s because we collectively refuse to admit that deliberate policy put up those barricades to places like Westport.

What’s the path forward?

I don’t want to pick on suburban parents. There’s no shame in wanting what’s best for your kids. That’s what everyone wants, no matter where you live, but we also have to reconcile that lobbying against change reinforces an unequal system.

And, lobby they did. Reforming school funding is halted year after year, due in large part to affluent towns insisting that any redistribution would be unacceptable, even though by and large enrollment is down in most small towns and many of them have been receiving more than they were supposed to for years.

It’s easy for Westport residents to call postponing music lessons till fifth grade — one of the proposed budget cuts this year — “fiscal terrorism,” but what about the fact that Westport was among districts being overpaid by the state for years at the expense of more impoverished school systems?

Meanwhile, high school kids in Bridgeport went six months without math teachers.

Once again, Quesnel’s words put it best: “In Connecticut, it’s ultimately about the segregation of where we live, and the lack of the sense that these are our kids —  that kids in East Hartford are not their kids but our kids—and all of our kids deserve an equitable chance and equitable opportunities. ”

I would take that a step further.

Affluent towns helped create the economic climate that fosters inequity in schools.

It’s easy for us to talk about inequity, but when plans to fix the system are proposed it’s just as easy for us to back away and say, well’s “that’s their problem,” but it isn’t just their problem.

It’s our problem, too.

Megan DeSombre writes about education in Connecticut on her blog EducationCT.org.

What do you think?

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