Rick Green: After 25 Years, Broken Education System Remains The Same
March 26, 2010
Merrill Gay still can't quite believe what he found when he moved to Connecticut 25 years ago.
Now a New Britain resident, Gay found a state where every little town and city scrapes together money from property taxes to pay for the local schools, creating a patchwork of inequity under a single state constitution that guarantees education equality.
Over those 25 years, very little has changed.
"Every year it feels like we fight the same battles and we lose a little more every year," Gay, 48, told me when we talked a few days after the state Supreme Court ruled that all children have a constitutional right to not just an education, but a quality one.
Gay, a parent of two, is a board member of the group that brought the suit, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. When Gay's daughter graduates from New Britain High School this spring, one in three of the classmates she started school with will have dropped out.
Supporters, legislators, lawyers, parents and politicians are trying to assess what the court ruling will mean and whether another yearslong court case will be needed to force real change.
For now, this is clear: Our method of financing schools has given us one of the most divided education systems in the country, rewarding Connecticut with some of the highest achieving students and schools. It's also given us one of the largest gaps between students who learn — and those who don't.
Meanwhile, nothing changes, even when we've been hit over the head with alarming reports for years.
Most of our future workforce is going to come from the cities, where the kids drop out and children don't learn to read. All that income tax money we get from Fairfield County won't matter much when our workers can't compete.
It's revealing to watch this week as our legislators and governor are more worked up about jobs for judges than they are about the fact that four in 10 Hispanic children don't finish high school. Even the good news the other day that our fourth-graders are among the best readers is a slap in the face: Minority children aren't even remotely part of this success story.
"It's very dire," said Old Saybrook First Selectman Mike Pace, also part of the coalition behind the school funding lawsuit.
"I think it's everybody's problem. Old Saybrook is not an island. We can't pretend the cities don't exist," said Pace, a Republican. "My budget goes up about $1 million a year for education. That is unsustainable in my town."
I don't want more taxes. I don't want more state spending. But you can't ignore what the Connecticut Mirror's Keith Phaneuf recently reported: According to the state revenue department, the gross incomes of our millionaires have shot up 140 percent since 2002. Yet no gubernatorial candidate with a shot at winning will dare talk about replacing the property tax with a more fair income tax.
Like I said, nothing changes.
The problem is "nobody really believes this is a winnable battle," Gay said.
I don't have any faith that our political leaders, who can't even agree on whether we can afford 10 more judges or how to balance the budget, will have the backbone to tackle our school funding problem. But while nothing happens, the problem grows steadily worse.
"New Britain is spending $1,300 less [per pupil] on average than the rest of the state," Gay said. "You have the poor people in the cities who live in rental housing and they don't have the tax base to pay for the schools. This is a place where there isn't the tax base to cover the cost of educating kids."
New Britain kindergarten students start school far behind children in other communities, Gay told me, with nearly half of them having barely "emerging" literacy skills.
Gay, Pace and a majority of the Supreme Court are now forcing us to face this disturbing question: When schools aren't equally "adequate" — when we preserve a system the penalizes the poor and turns out students who can't compete — where will that leave all of us?
It is the same place we were 25 years ago when Merrill Gay arrived. He can't believe it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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