Town-based School Districts Today, Town-based School Districts Tomorrow, Town-based School…
Town-based School Districts Today, Town-based School Districts Tomorrow, Town-based School Districts Forever
If you want to see how legalized school segregation works in 2016, come to Connecticut
Last week, a Superior Court in Hartford issued what could justly be called a barnburner of a decision concerning Connecticut’s education system. Judge Thomas Moukawsher read his ruling in CCJEF v. Rell aloud — all 90 pages of it. This system, Moukawsher said, is completely irrational and its results are appalling. How appalling? Well, on average, Connecticut’s students do better than students from any other state on 4th, 8th, and 12th grade assessments. But averages can be deceptive, as the judge noted:
The achievement gap between the rich and the poor in Connecticut is not just because our rich do so well. If it were, our poor would consistently outpace the poor in poorer states. But they don’t. According to 2013 NAEP tests, Connecticut’s poor children are no better readers than the poor anywhere else in the country and do worse at math. In fact, 2015 NAEP results show that poor children in 40 other states did better in math than Connecticut’s poor — including children in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana — 10 did about the same, and nobody did worse.
Consider that for a moment: the state’s wealthy students do so well that on average, the whole state is the best in the nation. But the state’s poor students do so poorly that they are effectively worse than any other students in the nation. And we’re talking about a state with under four million people.
And the problems are much more profound than mere funding. As the New York Times notes in its coverage of the decision, Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, and Fairfield, its suburban neighbor, have nearly equal per-pupil spending. But Bridgeport’s graduation rate is 63%, compared to 94% in Fairfield. Does this prove that funding doesn’t matter? On the contrary, it shows that the very notion of “equal” funding is deceptive:
Because schools are heavily supported by local property taxes, as the judge pointed out, a property-poor town like Bridgeport has less money for its schools, even while taxing its residents at higher rates. And when funds fall short — for things as basic as paper, as they sometimes do — there is no way to make it up.
That is not true in Fairfield, Mr. Dwyer, the chairman of the board of education, said. While his is not the highest-spending district in the state — several districts spend more than $25,000 per student — Fairfield parent associations raise money for field trips, white boards or boxes of school supplies.
And then there is what residents spend out of school. “A suburban family can get their kids to museums, they can travel, can get special tutors, they can get enrichment classes,” Mr. Dwyer said. “Poverty is a word, but what really separates the two districts is suburban children have more enrichment activities before they even start public school than the typical urban child, and that makes a difference.”
At first blush, Judge Moukawsher’s use of the word “irrational” to describe education in Connecticut seems right. How could such a small state achieve such dramatically disparate results in the provision of a public service? After all, there’s probably not a single government entity in the United States competent enough to provide radically different levels of the same service to different subsets of a small population without explicit rules dictating how to do it, and we got rid of those explicit rules with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One is inclined to think that a state government couldn’t deliver results this bad if it tried.
But this state of affairs is not irrational — it’s purposeful. It’s no secret that Connecticut is dramatically segregated by race and class. The lines of segregation tend to be the same ones that divide the state’s 169 towns. Connecticut delegates almost all responsibility for funding and administering public education to school districts defined by those same town lines.
How bad is the class and race segregation between towns? Hartford, the state’s capital, is 41% Hispanic and 38% black, with a median yearly household income of about $27,500 (less than half of the national median). Walk across Prospect Street to West Hartford, though, and the population is 74% white, with a median household income of nearly $81,000. Town lines, like those that divide Hartford from West Hartford, were explicitly racial and enforced by federal lending policy until just fifty years ago. What that means is that the (white) families that could buy houses in white towns two generations ago now have the accumulated wealth to stay in those towns, while the (black and Hispanic) families that were relegated to the cities have seen their houses fail to increase in value. They can’t pass on enough wealth for new generations to buy into the nominally integrated towns with good schools. And town governments and suburban legislators have made it their ongoing mission to impede the construction of affordable housing, so poor people are less able even to rent outside the poorest cities.
New Englanders sing the praises of our town government system, and Connecticut, an archipelago of suburbs and small cities, loves this system perhaps more than any other state. 169 separate municipalities in such a small state can seem silly to outsiders, but the system has its charms: to see your first selectman when you walk your dog or chat with your councilwoman outside the bodega is to interact with democracy up close, and it’s pretty great. It’s also probably safe to say that when the system started several hundred years back, school segregation wasn’t its principle aim. But at some point in the last century, local control has become a solid proxy for racial school segregation here. High-performing districts funded by property taxes justify inflated home prices that functionally exclude people whose families were denied the ability to accumulate wealth under legalized segregation. And because poor people are a minority of the state’s population, they can’t change the system in the legislature, where suburban, middle-class interests predominate.
What will be interesting, now that a court has given Connecticut six months to dramatically re-engineer its education system, is to see whether anyone gives serious consideration to the most obvious solution: abolishing town-based school districts. If you’re not from here, you might be inclined to wonder how anyone could consider anything else as a first step. After all, it’s one thing to argue, as suburbanites often do, that the residents of Hartford are solely responsible for our impending municipal insolvency because of the series of corrupt and incompetent leaders we’ve elected. Those arguments sometimes feel more than a little bit racist, but they’re at least loosely connected to race-neutral reasoning. But it’s hard to imagine anyone making a non-racist argument that the children of Hartford deserve substandard educations because of their elders’ electoral choices.
Nevertheless, town-based school districts will probably survive more or less as we know them now. The city-suburb divide is so deeply entrenched in Connecticut that sometimes it seems like the white majority has no models or words for thinking about real integration. Even middle class white people who like living in cities seem to resign themselves unquestioningly to the suburbs when they have kids. Time and again, when I tell white people that I live with my children in a part of Hartford other than the white enclave, they just stop talking and look at me, like the idea of a white professional with kids living where I live is too inexplicable for polite follow-up questions. So I expect the legislature to ring with florid defenses of our grand, 300-year-old tradition of local school control, and for any suggestion that the tradition perpetuates segregation to be rejected as beyond the bounds of respectful debate.