There has been much written in the past weeks about the case of Tanya McDowell, the Bridgeport mother arrested for sending her child to Norwalk schools. Many of these articles have a moral twist, demonizing Ms. McDowell as a thief with a criminal background, or the town of Norwalk as a haven for the heartless rich.
Yet very little has been said about the immoral nature of the property tax system that not only allows for, but encourages and protects, the kinds of educational inequalities that led Ms. McDowell to take the actions she did.
It's no secret that wealthier towns generally have better schools paid for by their property taxes. In fact, because of this reality, there are hundreds of students whose parents pay taxes in poorer cities but send their children to better suburban schools. It's called Project Concern/Open Choice. Conversely, many suburban parents keep their tax money in their own towns, and send their children to city-based magnet schools. All of this border-jumping is an implicit admission that the way public schools are organized and funded in the state is broken. We are attacking Ms. McDowell for breaking a law, and Norwalk for enforcing a law that has essentially been declared unsound by the state.
Yet we continue to sacrifice our moral duty and common sense on the altar of "local control." Never mind that a large portion of the money that funds most local schools comes from the state and federal governments, and that schools are held to federal education standards as a result. We maintain the illusion of local control primarily through the tax structure, which helps to fuel the well-documented educational disparities between cities and their suburban satellites.
Stating that local funding calls for local control is a moral failing of the highest order. It obscures the fact that districts across Connecticut rely on state and federal subsidies in order to perpetuate the myth of local control. This in turn is used to justify why some students should receive a better or worse education based on the accident of where they live.
It becomes clear that the mantra of local control is basically a euphemism for racial, social and economic isolation. Those who define this as a law-and-order issue, a matter of theft, are committing the gravest wrong of all: defending an immoral law simply because it is the law.
Local control in practice does not exist, or is at least severely overstated due to the strings attached to the federal and state money for which local districts clamor. Instead, closing town borders to prevent "theft" denies a high-quality education to children based on their geography, and negatively affects poor, and oftentimes minority, students.
The property-tax model of school funding, in concert with other social and economic conditions, serves to keep these students in their place. Bad school systems continue to founder, good ones continue to flourish, and students are locked into their schools by the address and assessed values of their homes.
The debate over whether Norwalk or Ms. McDowell was in the wrong misses the point entirely. This is an opportunity to step back and take a look at the system that has created this situation. The tax system that supports public schooling is not simply flawed, it is morally wrong. We need the courage to acknowledge that, and then fix it.
Jamil R. Ragland of Hartford is a junior in the Individualized Degree Program at Trinity College.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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