Behind Connecticut’s “Opportunity Gap”
Dollars, sense and luck of the ZIP Code: Why education funding in Connecticut is only a small part of its oversized achievement gap
MIND THE GAP
In Hartford, Connecticut, a third-grade class read enough books to earn a pizza party. The excited students piled onto a bus, crossing the Connecticut River to a pizza parlor in East Hartford. One student pointed out the window: “What’s that?” She had never seen a river, recalls current Westport Public Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer. Shortly after, Palmer visited a third-grade classroom in the affluent town of Weston. A girl told Palmer it was almost her birthday, and Palmer asked what she was doing to celebrate. The answer: her father was taking her to Paris.
In 2015, the Economic Analysis and Research Network, a national economic policy coalition, reported that Connecticut has the largest income gap between the top 1 percent of taxpayers and bottom 99 percent. Perhaps because of this, Connecticut also has the nation’s largest achievement gap among pre-K-12 students.
Consider two districts. This year, Suburban Westport, Connecticut, is spending $21,716 per student and, as of 2016, its public schools are ranked first in the state based on factors including academic proficiency, student and parent satisfaction and teacher excellence. The city of New Haven, home to Yale University, spent $19,746 per student this academic year, and its public schools rank 101st out of 118 state districts.
Connecticut data-sharing nonprofit Data Haven found in 2013 that in Greater New Haven, 17 percent of low-income students were reading at grade level as compared to 58 percent of their high-income peers. The Tauck Family Foundation, a private foundation that invests in the development of children from low-income families in Bridgeport, reports that students in low-performing schools are five times more likely to drop out of high school than those in high-performing schools.
If the difference in spending per student in Westport and New Haven is only 9 percent, wouldn’t a relatively small tweak in funding equalize the two systems? Would evening out budgets across Connecticut towns finally fix its acute educational inequities?
Maybe, if upbringing, geography, attitude, environment and resources weren’t determining factors.
METHOD OR MADNESS?
In September, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the Connecticut Superior Court ruled that key elements of the existing public education system were unconstitutional, giving the state 180 days to present a plan for funding reform. The decision of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell came over 10 years after the case was brought to court in 2005 to address the harm done to Connecticut’s schoolchildren by the state’s inequitable funding of public schools. CCJEF is a nonprofit network of municipalities, boards of education, unions, students and other taxpayers that aims to reform the state’s finance system to make quality schooling accessible to all.
Joseph Moodhe is a litigation partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, the New York law firm that has served as pro bono counsel in the CCJEF case for the past two years. Moodhe explains that the plaintiff’s claims are twofold: The state is failing its constitutional duty to provide sufficient education to its students, and “the way the system is administered is in denial of equal protection under the law insofar as it has discriminatory effects to various groups of students, principally socioeconomically disadvantaged students and minorities.”
Moodhe says the court found that at an aggregate level, there are sufficient resources available to the Connecticut school system to satisfy its constitutional obligation but that the policies and standards it implements to execute this responsibility are inadequate.
“Specifically, the funding formula that is used to distribute money to school districts [is] irrational and therefore unconstitutional,” Moodhe says.
Connecticut uses a web of 11 different funding formulas to fund its public schools, depending on the type of school — conventional public schools, charter schools, technical schools and magnet schools. The problem, according to Michael Morton, Communications Manager of the nonprofit Connecticut School Finance Project, is that none of these formulas are actually based on the needs of the students such schools are serving.
Funding for schools depends on the type of school, its location, the political power of legislators representing its district and how much the school received in previous years. The formulas don’t take into account changes to enrollment or demographics, Morton says. So if a school or district has more low-income students or higher-needs students enrolled than in previous years, funding does not shift accordingly.
Morton explains that special student needs primarily fit into three categories: low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities. Currently, the Education Cost Sharing formula — the primary formula Connecticut’s legislature uses to calculate aid for local school districts — is supposed to consider the needs of low-income students, as defined by their eligibility for reduced-price or free lunch.
The caveat? The ECS formula, while still in state law, stopped being used to distribute funds locally in 2013 because the state could not fully finance the formula without plunging into debt. Although the general guidelines remain the same, most states do not receive full funding from the state government. And even if the ECS were used correctly, English learners and special-needs students wouldn’t receive additional funding through the formula, but rather through “a hodgepodge of grants that have certain eligibility requirements,” according to Morton. Connecticut is one of just four states that do not have a funding system for all of their special-education students, which hurts all students, he adds.
Since 2013, Connecticut has not used the ECS consistently across districts. Instead, it funds public education through block grants: lump sums given to each district but with little methodology involved. According to the Connecticut School Finance Project, in 2014, 57 percent of total education financing came from local funds (mostly from property taxes, which vary radically between ZIP codes), 39 percent came from state taxes and less than 5 percent came from federal funds. Property-poor towns receive higher percentages of this state aid than property-wealthy towns because their local revenue is considerably less than that of affluent municipalities with expensive properties. So although Westport and New Haven public schools use the same funding formula, their education funding is based on town wealth rather than student need.
And there is little transparency about how the monetary amount of each block grant is decided and distributed between towns, Morton says.
“With the last budget passed in May, the ECS grants that were determined for [certain] districts were basically pulled out of thin air,” Morton remarks. “We [at the CT School Finance Project] tried to go back and determine how they were reached, mathematically, and we couldn’t do it. Neither could members of the State Department of Education. It’s basically just a block grant that legislators determine based on the financial condition of the state but not based on any formula.”
This “irrational” funding system is what Judge Moukawsher declared inadequate and unconstitutional in September, writing, “To be constitutional, the state’s chief education policies do not have to be richly funded but they must at least be rational, substantial and verifiable.” Moukawsher added, “The state’s definition of what it means to have a secondary education is like a sugar-cube boat. It dissolves before it’s half launched.”
But instead of moving toward reform, the state remains embroiled in a legal dispute: both the state defendant and the CCJEF plaintiffs are appealing the trial court’s findings. According to Moodhe, the state is objecting to the court’s ruling that policies and standards are unconstitutional, and the plaintiffs are objecting both to the finding that there are adequate resources on a statewide basis and to its failure to declare the system an equal protection violation.
Had the case moved forward without an appeal, Connecticut would have had to submit a plan for clarifying and reforming its funding formulas, but Moodhe says he is not sure what such plans would entail. The CCJEF case focuses on inadequate policies and standards rather than resources, and the creation and implementation of new financing methods remains “a big unknown.” The first priority, Moodhe says, is determining which violations the state needs to fix, and then sitting down and thinking about how to do so — and quickly: Once students leave the school system, the state will be “beyond any ability to help them.”
“Frankly, I care a lot less about whether we win or lose the particular litigation issues,” Moodhe admits. “What I truly hope is that the governor and the legislature are able to find a solution to the problems that have been identified in the court proceedings. Whether you agree with the legal reasoning or not, I think the evidence was overwhelming of there being significant shortfalls and deficiencies that have to be addressed.”
Morton from the CT School Finance Project agrees, remarking that Connecticut has been struggling with determining how to distribute state education dollars equitably for almost four decades, and should not wait longer for a court decision, to address the gap.
“There is certainly a path forward,” Morton says. “It begins with the construction of one funding formula that is based on students’ needs — while that sounds really broad, that’s basically the solution.”
RESOURCES AND RESOURCEFULNESS
Ideally, Morton’s solution would translate into fairer funding and thereby more resources for the districts that need them the most. This could be a game-changer for low-income districts like New Haven, where money is a sizeable factor in the education gap.
“Think about what funding could do,” says Edward Joyner, a member of the New Haven Board of Education. Joyner tells me a quick visit to Hillhouse High School would reveal how few computers are available to students, limiting their access to the internet. He once went to a classroom to help a teacher develop a sociology course, and when he advised her to do some research to make it authentic, she replied that there was only one set of Google Chromebook computers for the entire department. In other words, while receiving more money for these resources wouldn’t eliminate the district’s problems, it would alleviate them.
“Obviously, you’ve got to buy the hardware and the software and the capital that will make a difference,” Joyner says. “And I think that technology, better teacher-student ratios and enrichment for students is helpful.”
But New Haven educators disagree about the quantity and accessibility of this “capital.”
David Weinrib, who teaches a sixth grade bilingual class for Spanish-speakers new to the district at Fair Haven School, explains his primary aim is to support these new students, and there is “a good amount of money in place to make that happen.”
Weinrib, whose class has 14 students as opposed to the district’s (and Westport’s) average of 24, doesn’t see a shortage of resources. The school has gotten a lot of investment specifically for taking care of the higher-needs, bilingual population, he says, with Chromebooks for every student, a classroom projector and access to online resources, thanks to a state grant Weinrib said he doesn’t know much about. He adds that he couldn’t complain about the district’s lack of resources because it is not his reality, and it falls to teachers to “know how to ask for stuff.”
New Haven itself is a valuable resource, Weinrib says, particularly for those who go out of their way to access its assets. His class takes frequent field trips to help newcomers acclimate to their city and learns programming with a group of Yale students every Friday.
“I look at this city as an advantage, not as a disadvantage. But not everybody sees it that way,” Weinrib says. “I think that there’s not a lack of resources as much of a lack of super-strong communication about what those resources are. And I think there are ways in which being in an urban environment should be advantageous to us that I don’t think people necessarily acknowledge, but absolutely is real — like being close to four universities, that [more affluent towns] don’t have.”
And affluent towns like Westport have their own struggles.
Westport Superintendent Colleen Palmer acknowledges that Westport has resources but also has budget woes. Connecticut has been reducing funding for affluent towns to boost lower income districts like New Haven, which don’t have comparable local funds with which to sustain themselves. Last year, state funding to Westport was reduced by $1.1 million, which is likely to happen again this year, making paying salaries and health insurance for employees of the school system more difficult. A requested budget increase, Palmer says, would add at least $3 million to Westporters’ tax burden, and the town doesn’t want to raise taxes for fear of driving residents out.
Still, Palmer acknowledges, Westport buys “current editions of everything and has state-of-the-art everything; the materials we discard are better than the materials [Bridgeport] has in their classrooms.” Westport gives some of its discarded resources, such as curriculum materials and classroom desks, to neighboring lower-income districts like Bridgeport because, Palmer says, “it is not a level playing field in terms of resource allocation.”
Westport has the resources, but are they the right ones? Becky Hoving, a senior at Westport’s public Staples High School, says the school gym now has a rock wall, in addition to kayaks for use in the indoor pool. The school newspaper just bought new cameras, including a 360-degree camera, and the cafeteria is always stocking up on new foods and snacks.
“I feel like we spend a lot of money on what we consider staple luxuries, when in reality we don’t really need these things,” Hoving says. “Sure, a rock wall is fun, but is it necessary? Probably not.”
Sheri Gordon, a member of the Westport Board of Finance, agrees that Westport’s investment in education carries consequences.
“Westport is one of the few communities that I think spends more on education than on everything else combined … 60–40 in terms of breakdown. But I’d say the formula is starting to show a few cracks,” Gordon says. “On the town side, people are working hard to continue giving as much as we can to the schools. It becomes a bit of a problem because you’re giving so much and obviously need fire trucks and police officers. You want to maintain the excellence of the schools, but also make sure everyone in the community is being served. Out of 27,000 residents, only about 5,600 are students.”
Westport and New Haven each have their own, albeit drastically different, problems with resource allocation. Perhaps it’s because Westport spends 55 percent of its budget on education, while New Haven allocates just 35 percent. As the two claims of the CCJEF case suggest, it’s not just a question of money, but of opportunity. Even if the CCJEF case pushes funding reform forward, inequalities will persist.
“ZIP CODE APARTHEID”
Connecticut’s achievement gap transcends money.
“The achievement gap is an opportunity gap more than anything else, and the evidence is clear it’s the result of years of deprivation and denial of opportunity,” New Haven BOE member Joyner adds. “People who have been treated as second-class citizens are expected to participate at the same level as everyone else. If you’re asking the school to equalize all the disadvantages that people have, by circumstances of birth, that’s really not fair. If you really want to try to give everybody a shot at a good education, you’ve also got to provide a better environment for economics, for job opportunities, for good families and so on and so forth.”
To Joyner, equal opportunity means not just better resources in the classroom, but a better environment outside of school. A child spends on average 6.5 hours a day in school, 180 days a year, therefore spending about 17 hours a day, 365 days a year, somewhere else, Joyner says. Classroom materials are not the only factors shaping students’ experiences. “New Haven is the 11th poorest city this size in the country, and that misery does have an impact on student school performance,” he adds.
Students’ home learning environments can make a big difference, Joyner says, citing his own family. His children grew up going to museums, using multiple computers, reading from their in-home library and taking summer classes. His daughter was a National Merit Scholar and is now assistant principal at Hillhouse High School, and her brother and cousins are mathematicians, engineers and psychologists. “And this is a family,” Joyner adds, “that two generations ago was sharecroppers in North Carolina.”
Bryan Crandall, Director of the Connecticut Writing Project and professor at Fairfield University, visits schools throughout southern Connecticut for his job. He describes going from high-security schools where he gets patted down in the lobby to schools that have stables for their equestrian team, all in the same region.
“I call what we experience in southern Connecticut ‘ZIP Code Apartheid,’” Crandall says. “You’ve got some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the nation in this area, but you also have some of the highest pockets of poverty in the nation and they’re next door to each other. As of today, we haven’t figured out how to do a better job educating all kids.”
So much of it comes down to luck, Crandall says. He teaches students at Fairfield University who have had a college coach since their freshman year of high school, competing with kids from schools in which there are no copiers or books.
“Some kids are born on third base thinking they hit a triple,” he says.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Family engagement makes a huge difference, if the two third-graders from Westport Superintendent Palmer’s story are any indication.
“These two children enter the world with the same potential, but think about the difference in life experience,” Palmer says, adding that studies show children with two college-educated parents enter kindergarten with thousands more words in their vocabulary than children who do not.
Alicia Caraballo, a New Haven Board of Education member who has worked in the district for 26 years, says one of the biggest challenges she has seen is lack of students’ language and social skills entering kindergarten, which puts them at a disadvantage for their entire schooling.
This, she explains, is because “school is not the end-all. There’s so much learning that is important and exposure that needs to take place that it can’t all rely on students getting everything they need in school.”
Both parents, especially in districts like New Haven, often work at least one job and spend less time in the house or bringing their children to places like museums, Caraballo says.
New Haven faces problems with community engagement, but not necessarily for lack of interest. David Weinrib, the bilingual classroom teacher, says he had 100 percent attendance at his parent-teacher conferences this year, although he acknowledges that is not common in most classes. Weinrib says his families have lots of interests and desires for their children, but don’t always have the time to come to field trips and participate in experiential learning activities, especially because they are new to the city.
“They’re figuring out jobs in a new place for the very first time and in many different cases are setting up their lives,” Weinrib says. “I feel like family engagement is huge, and our families are here, for this. They upended their lives for this — there were many push factors, but the major pull is education for their families.”
According to Sheri Gordon, Westport’s worry is not a lack of parent engagement but its “overly involved helicopter parents.” She adds that studies show, as annoying as they may be, such parents tend to produce students with better academic results.
Parental engagement in Westport targets one goal: college admission. Palmer says that most parents in affluent communities “only think about college,” and in Westport, 98 percent of students get accepted. The pressure to achieve this goal can be detrimental to students’ learning, she adds, as many don’t take certain classes or electives because they don’t carry enough weight in their GPA.
Becky Hoving describes her Westport school as a “pressure cooker.” She tells me students are on all kinds of prescription and nonprescription medications for anxiety and depression, and “every student seems to be in ruthless competition with one another.”
“Westport is a textbook case of irony,” Hoving says. “On the outside it’s virtually perfect. … It’s kind of like a Christmas card: a perfect facade for the problems that permeate beneath the matching sweaters and snowflake designs you receive in the mail. Beneath all of the glitz and glam, Westport has so many problems.”
DO DEMOGRAPHICS EQUAL DESTINY?
Connecticut’s wealth gap is as colossal as its achievement gap. But solving issues of funding won’t equalize educational opportunity and performance across districts.
“Your kid will win the lottery based on geography, which is unfair,” Westporter Sheri Gordon says. “The hard part is, it doesn’t only come down to spending. Over the years, they’ve tried to throw money at it, but that still, unfortunately, doesn’t fix fundamental issues in the school systems.”
The United States spends more per capita on education than any other country and doesn’t have the results to show for it, education journalist Monica Disare ’15 told me. It seems obvious, then, that both Connecticut’s problem and solution lay beyond funding formulas.
Perhaps the answer lies in charter schools, which receive government funding but operate independently of their public school districts. “Funding, while necessary, is not the main event,” says Andy Boas, a Westport investment advisor who founded the Charter Oak Challenge Foundation, which works to improve Bridgeport education and spearheaded the opening of a local chapter of an Achievement First charter school.
Achievement First, a network of 32 nonprofit K-12 public charter schools in the Northeast, operates on the belief that, according to its website, “closing the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our time.” To achieve this goal, the school requires new teachers to participate in a month of professional development training, and classes end early on Fridays so staff can meet for an extra two hours each week. The rest of the week, the Achievement First school day is two hours longer than the traditional public school day, allowing for extended reading and math classes as well as tutoring and independent reading programs during and after school. Teachers give interim assessments every six weeks to test student mastery of material and build standards and curricula based on year-end standards and advancing college readiness.
Achievement First and other charter schools are further set apart by their culture: Classrooms promote core values such as respect, enthusiasm and hard work. Parents sign a contract outlining their support of students and teachers as a symbolic commitment; teachers promote attendance and uniforms and emphasize the message that all students will go to college (kindergarteners this year, for instance, are known as “Class of 2029,” the year they will graduate from college) making sure the environment is nurturing and joyful. Given the choice, it seems like every parent and student would choose to learn in such a supportive atmosphere. Still, critics say charter schools lack transparency considering they are funded by taxpayers, have less local accountability and control because they are part of larger networks, and aren’t actually that diverse, as they attract a self-selecting group of families.
Boas also mentions the Open Choice program in Westport and surrounding municipalities, which buses students in from inner city schools. The problem, he says, is the exchange is one-sided: Westport students aren’t hopping on buses to go to New Haven public schools. And, speaking of a choice, a new state court case is gaining attention while the CCJEF appeal drags on.
Boas tells me that Martinez v. Malloy addresses equal protection rather than fair funding. The plaintiff claims that because Connecticut’s inner city schools are so bad, and the number of charter schools is blocked by the state, students have no choice in the quality of their education. Students should have the opportunity to go to objectively better schools, even if they come from a poor family in an urban environment, he said.
William Ginsberg, the president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, agrees that funding reform is not the solution, but it couldn’t hurt.
“My own view is funding is terribly important, and I was happy to see a judge say that current funding formulas are unconstitutional in Connecticut, but they’re not the answer,” Ginsberg muses. “How children are taught; how teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated and developed are all equally crucially issues, if not more crucial. What we need to do in the community is diffuse those issues so they’re not pitched battles between so-called reformers and the unions and others.”
Connecticut sees widespread inequality in education and opportunity. Court cases like CCJEF and Martinez provide the legal impetus for legislative reform, which is an essential part of evening the playing field for students. But it is just that: a part. Fixing finances may narrow the state’s achievement gap, but it won’t close it. Reform is needed within and beyond the classroom to ensure students’ backgrounds don’t dictate their accomplishments. Fixing Connecticut’s public schools is a balancing act, and it’s time to finally get our footing.