Two Connecticut School Systems, for the Rich and Poor
The New Yorker, Sept. 16, 2016
By Lincoln Caplan
For close to half a century, the aim of scores of lawsuits about public schools across the country has been to require states to improve education for students by spending a lot more money. When the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. M. Jodi Rell began, in 2005, that was its goal, too. Last week, after sixty days of a bench trial, Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher, of the Connecticut Superior Court, said that the judiciary cannot set the amount of money the state must spend on education. In a smartly written, sometimes sardonic, and unusually pointed ninety-page opinion, he focussed instead on how the state is spending the billions of dollars it does on education and concluded that it is failing miserably.
Connecticut, which last year had the highest per-capita income in the country, also places two-thirds of its black and Hispanic public-school students in institutions that are effectively segregated. Moukawsher held that many of Connecticut’s “most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational.” He wrote, “They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children’s needs.”
State support for education does not go “where it’s needed,” so in the state’s “recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools.” The standards for students to advance from grade to grade and for seniors to graduate are “so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them.” Teachers’ pay “follows only seniority and degrees instead of reflecting need and good teaching.” Special education spending is “adrift” because the state does “nothing” to see that special services “go to the right people in the right way.” The result is “paralysis,” the judge concluded, which “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.” The contrast is especially pronounced in cases where rich and poor districts adjoin each other, as the Times has reported.
In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a provision added to the state constitution in 1965 guarantees students an adequate education. A majority of the seven Justices could not agree on what that meant, so they issued the narrow holding that the provision “contemplates free public elementary and secondary schools that, at the least, are minimally adequate.” Schools must be “of at least some measure or level of quality” so that they do not “do violence to the meaning of the term ‘school.’ “ In his decision last week, Moukawsher wrote that the constitutional promise of adequate schools shouldn’t put the courts in charge of them, “but it should at least mean this much: children have a judicially enforceable right to first principles governing our schools that are reasoned, substantial, and verifiably connected to teaching.”
He gave the government of Connecticut a hundred eighty days to propose reforms “consistent with this opinion,” in how it defines elementary and secondary education; evaluates and pays teachers; and identifies the need for, assesses the impact of, and pays for special-education services. The judge wrote, “The court knows what its ruling means for many deeply ingrained practices, but it also has a marrow-deep understanding that if they are to succeed where they are most strained schools have to be about teaching children and nothing else. If they are to succeed rather than be overwhelmed by demands for alternative schools, public schools must keep their promises. So change must come.”
He underscored the troubling pattern of the “flaw of averages,” as Sam Savage, a Stanford professor and computer scientist, has called it. “On average,” the judge wrote, “Connecticut students do exceptionally well on standardized tests.” But the state’s achievement gap between low-income students and other students is the largest in the United States. In tests developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which includes Connecticut and other states, more than eighty per cent of the state’s richest towns surpassed the minimum standards for English in the 2014-15 school year. Nearly seventy per cent of the poor towns failed to meet those standards. In the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, no state did worse than Connecticut’s poor in math. “There is no place to hide this bad news,” Moukawsher said.
Equal opportunity in education back to top
In a 2010 book about the challenge of providing equal opportunity in education, James E. Ryan, the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, assessed school litigation like Connecticut’s. Called “Five Miles Away, a World Apart,” the book compared a beleaguered high school in Richmond, Virginia, with a much more successful one in a nearby suburb. In focusing on how to close this achievement gap, Ryan concluded, “The single best solution to this crisis is greater socioeconomic and racial diversity within each district and school.”
Ryan traced this insight to a controversial report by the sociologist James Coleman. Published in 1966, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” is “best remembered for asserting that . . . an individual student’s socioeconomic status is the best predictor of academic success,” Ryan wrote. But, as he noted, Coleman also reported that low-income children benefit significantly from having more affluent classmates. And if a school remains mostly middle class, with a culture of high expectations, children from higher-income households in classes with low-income students continue to do as well as they were doing before. As Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the Times Magazine earlier this year, “Decades of studies have affirmed integration’s power.”
This kind of integration was impossible in the Richmond area. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, unless there was proof of intentional racial discrimination on the part of a suburban school district, school integration of city and suburban students across district lines is barred under the U.S. Constitution. School systems, before and since, have been challenged in court in forty-five states. Twenty-two of the cases have come out in favor of the state and the status quo. Twenty-six have found that a state’s system of funding education was unacceptable and, in many cases, unconstitutional, which began what Ryan called “a process of political bargaining.”
In Kentucky and Massachusetts, the state legislatures passed major reform laws, with increases in spending, “because they had already decided that their funding systems needed reform before the courts issued their opinions,” Ryan wrote. But, from his research, Ryan concluded that school litigation in most states leaves “a lot of inequality untouched.” His book leaves the discouraging impression that the most effective remedy for unequal opportunity in education—integration by class and race—has been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court and by the deeply entrenched patterns of socioeconomic and racial separation across the country.
Regionalization back to top
Connecticut, which has one of the highest rates of school segregation in the country, also has a state constitution that could allow it to solve this problem. In addition to the 1965 education provision that is the foundation of Moukawsher’s decision, the constitution has a provision that was amended in 1974, and again in 1984, so that it is explicitly an anti-segregation as well as an anti-discrimination clause. Under these provisions, as the Connecticut Supreme Court has interpreted them, the state likely has the authority to integrate students by class and race.
Connecticut could address its predicament by creating eight school districts matching its eight counties, so that the thirty poorer districts whose challenges remain severe could become integrated into richer districts. The Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a bipartisan and moderate group of business and civic leaders, has proposed regionalization of schools as a way to deal with declining enrollment in more than three-quarters of the state’s towns. Regionalization could accomplish that and much more. Bridgeport, for example, is surrounded by four wealthier towns in Fairfield County. With careful planning, a countywide school district could benefit poorer students from Bridgeport academically, and richer students would not suffer. Students in both groups would benefit from the type of diversity that, as a compelling interest of the government, is the sole reason the U.S. Supreme Court continues to allow affirmative action in admissions at public universities.
Such a move would help return public education in Connecticut to what the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, in the latest issue of The American Scholar, said the founding fathers had in mind when they defined “education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government.” As it happens, a legal clinic at Yale Law School (where I teach a writing class) brought the case against Connecticut. Many of the students who worked on it during the past twelve years were the first in their families to go to college, and many were graduates of public schools as bad as the poorest ones in Connecticut. With Moukawsher’s decision, they may have played a part in transforming those schools and the lives of the students who attend them.