From Jackson Laboratory to the First Five, from transit investment to deficit reduction and preschool education — with a large helping of storm management — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy hasn't slept much during his first year in office.
Now, he's made the largest investment in housing creation and preservation in decades, and has declared 2012 the year of education. These two goals demonstrate the governor's less visible, but equally vital, ability to make connections between policy areas and develop coordinated solutions.
The governor has made sure housing is part of the discussion on transit-oriented development around rail and bus stations; on the Department of Children and Families' effort to improve our child welfare system; and on both mental health and correction policies to improve outcomes and cut recidivism.
The link between housing and education centers on these questions: Can thoughtful reforms to enhance learning between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. close the gap on their own? If children return to a home between 3 p.m. and 9 a.m. that is overcrowded, unaffordable, substandard and located in an overburdened school district and community with few services, will the classroom progress be sustainable?
Heather Schwartz, a RAND Corp. researcher found in 2009 that when low-income students in Montgomery County, Md., were able to live in a community with many services and a school district with more resources — because the county had a program that provided affordable homes in high-income neighborhoods — they raised their reading and math scores, narrowing the achievement gap considerably.
That option — affordable homes in many municipalities with high-resource schools and neighborhoods with everything from soccer leagues to fresh food access — isn't widely available to Connecticut's low-income residents. Ten percent of the housing stock is affordable in only 31 of the state's 169 municipalities and they tend to have the most overburdened school districts and lowest-quality, though still expensive, homes. The other 138 towns are out of sight and out of reach.
Why are affordable homes necessary for school success? Because more than half the 400,000 renting households in the state must pay 30 percent or more of their income for housing. That leaves little for food, clothing, health care and other necessities. Kids in these households don't necessarily have warm coats for school, their own bedroom to do homework, a hot meal for dinner or breakfast, and a home free of mold, dust mites and other allergens.
For the 112,000 renting households that earn less than 50 percent of the median income and spend more than half that meager income on rent, the situation is worse. They live in a perpetual state of anxiety that they will be homeless, there is little food in the house, and parents have to work too many hours to supervise homework or recreation.
When kids move during the school year — 23 percent in urban districts, 5 percent in suburban schools — they fall behind and are more likely to fail. Research shows highly mobile children underperform in reading and math and are more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
No one is suggesting families living in the state's 31 poorer school districts and municipalities must move to the suburbs. Their families, friends and cultural touchstones are in the cities.
That is why we should provide a choice. They, like the fortunate among us, should be able to move to the communities and schools that work best for their children. How many of our kids might not have prospered had we been unable to choose the districts that best met their particular needs?
On the other hand, we must also improve the schools, and the housing options, available in our urban centers. There are proven strategies to accomplish that goal.
Problems can't be solved in a vacuum. Traffic congestion? Create mass transit, put homes near it, and you'll get cars off the road. The achievement gap? Fix 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. But don't forget about 3 p.m. to 9 a.m.
Howard G. Rifkin, former deputy state treasurer and counsel to Gov. William A. O'Neill, is executive director of The Partnership for Strong Communities, a housing policy organization based in Hartford. Heather Schwartz will speak a forum on housing and the achievement gap at 9 a.m. Thursday at The Lyceum at 227 Lawrence St., Hartford. For information, email Laura Bachman, email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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