Getting serious about closing education gap

In my column last week, I noted that despite the plaintiffs emerging with a legal victory in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case, filed 30 years ago this year, the large academic performance gap between public school students in our poor urban centers and their affluent suburban neighbors persists.

Sheff made the argument that the failure to provide a quality education in city schools had a prejudicial element, in that it disproportionately and adversely affected the large black and Latino populations that inhabit those cities. In 1996 the state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, agreed the situation violated the state Constitution.

My point in the column was that the courts can recognize a situation as unconstitutional and demand it be addressed, but without the power of the purse or the legislative levers to alter how state public education is provided, their power is limited, as evidenced by the lack of progress.

This led to quite a few people asking, “So what would you do?”

First, recognize that poorer performance in urban schools is an economic and societal problem, not a racial or ethnic problem. The large pockets of poverty in our urban centers disproportionately affect the minority groups clustered there.

Connecticut is highly dependent on property taxes to fund government services, particularly education. Only two other states are more property tax dependent — New Hampshire and New Jersey — according to the Tax Foundation.

Property tax bases are often proportionally larger in suburban towns with their bigger commercial bases and expensive homes, than in cities with their aging downtowns, old neighborhoods, abandoned brownfields and holdings not subject to property taxation — such as the nonprofit hospitals, colleges and government buildings.

This situation gives two strikes against our urban centers, their schools and students.

Strike one is the reduced resources a small tax base provides; strike two is that the high tax rates that result from the smaller tax base make it that much harder for the cities to attract economic development and pull families out of the poverty that is at the core of lower academic outcomes.

Think New London as compared to Waterford, Norwich as compared to Colchester.

A solution might be to group our communities into larger municipal entities — counties — better sharing the benefits of commercial property tax generation, rather than dividing our communities into property tax haves and have nots. This approach would both help economic development in urban centers and help lift families there out of poverty. It would also more fairly allocate tax resources for education.

But good luck with that politically.

The state could better address the great disadvantage children coming from poor families face. 

By the time they reach kindergarten, low-income kids are often well behind their wealthier suburban peers. And studies show most have a difficult time catching up as they get older. One analysis found that by the time they start school, low-income kids have heard around 30 million fewer words than children from middle- and high-income families.

For this column, the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood was willing to share with me a draft report on the topic.

“Unequitable access to high quality care and learning experiences contributes to Connecticut’s disparities in educational achievement among school-age children when children start off without a sufficient foundation,” it concludes.

Exactly.

The report notes that state funding for preschoolers does not reach many of the families who need it most — the poor. Instead the state aid funneled to communities is “financial need-blind.” It should be need based.

According to statistics noted in a 2015 New York Times story, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are seven times more likely to have been born to a teenage mother. Only half live with both parents, compared with 83 percent of the children of college graduates.

Welfare programs should be re-evaluated and redesigned to provide incentives for people who struggle on the margins to form traditional two-parent families. As things stand now, adding a second income through marriage, for example, can leave a family without access to health insurance, food assistance programs and other forms of help, yet still unable to afford these needs. The better financial choice is to stay in relationships without legal commitment.

Republicans in this state have been the leaders in looking at ways individuals and families can add income without immediately losing assistance, allowing for a chance to be weaned off that help rather than cut off.

Closing the achievement gap means helping parents, too, offering outreach programs to teach them best practices in parenting, their role in education and managing the overlapping demands of work and family. Contrary to stereotypes, many of these families are the working poor.

Ultimately, it is about breaking the cycle of poverty. Lower income, less educated parents will never be able to keep up with the more affluent who will spend whatever it takes and live wherever they must to assure that their children have every chance to get to the front of the pack. Generational change will come with giving those children from the lower socioeconomic brackets a fighting chance. Court rulings or not, we’re not even close yet.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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