A Judgment in Connecticut

A court ruling in my state, Connecticut, has made national news for its impact on public education. As the New York Times reported, the lawsuit brought by an educational coalition had challenged how schools are funded, seeking new ways to overcome the effect of widely unequal resources and to reduce corresponding discrepancies in educational outcomes. In a sweeping and sardonic judgment – which, remarkably, he read from the bench over nearly three hours  – Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled in the group’s favor, castigating the state for running an educational system that “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder” and charging Connecticut with “defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children a good education.

What differentiates this decision from many others around the country are its breadth and depth. Rather than lay down specific remedies, Judge Moukawsher’s ruling offered a deep critique of how the system works – or, in his sometimes scathing view, fails to.  It’s about money, yes, but much more. Moukawsher condemned Connecticut’s haphazard special-education policies. He blasted meaningless teacher evaluations (almost never negative), student evaluations and social promotions, quoting the school superintendent in the city of Bridgeport acknowledging that “a functionally illiterate person could get a Bridgeport high school degree.”

Regarding money, the ruling departed from what has typically been the focus of similar judgments – namely, eliminating the resource gap between wealthy suburbs and poor cities.

Instead of aiming simply to even out per-pupil expenditures, Moukawsher ruled, the state should target what makes for a good education – for all students -- and then figure out what’s necessary in order to accomplish it. The clear implication is that mere equity on the spending side may not be enough. If students in the least advantaged systems need more, need better, they should get it.

Connecticut is a likely state for such a case to arise in. First of all, the disparities in wealth are more glaring here than elsewhere, and with school funding based on property-tax revenues, those disparities create structural inequalities. Furthermore, they closely follow racial lines -- the state’s minority students are densely concentrated in its under-resourced cities -- and are replicated in educational outcomes: the so-called “achievement gap” between urban and suburban students in my state is the biggest anywhere in the U.S., with over 80% of students in the wealthier towns meeting minimum standards for English last year, versus just 30% in poorer districts. These inequities were aggravated this year when the state, embroiled in a budget crisis, abruptly reduced education aid to a number of struggling cities – an action that riled Judge Moukawsher, who observed that “allow[ing] rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty to provide adequate educational opportunities to all students.”

Second, the state has both a legal basis for making such rulings (a provision of its constitution guarantees all students an adequate education), and a recent history of judicial intervention. The precursor to the current ruling is another one, Sheff v. O’Neill, that made national waves two decades ago. Filed in 1989, that suit charged that racial segregation – Hartford public schools at the time were nearly 97% minority -- violated the constitutional guarantee I mentioned above. Sidestepping around the question of discriminatory intent, it argued that de facto segregation – “racial isolation” was the slightly less abrasive term it used -- was unconstitutional on its face, no matter what the cause. The case took seven years to reach the state’s Supreme Court, which in a landmark 1996 decision agreed, ruling that the high concentration of black and Latino students in Hartford's schools violated the constitution's guarantee of “a substantially equal educational opportunity.” It ordered the state to fix the problem.

The Sheff ruling put the state between a rock and a hard place. The court had ordered it to remedy racial imbalance; but common wisdom for decades had viewed any remedy that ships students involuntarily across lines – “forced busing” – as a third rail of politics. Put simply, no politician was going to go there. And so the state came up with a system designed to draw students voluntarily across those lines, via interdistrict city magnet schools designed to lure students in from the suburbs. Connecticut then spent an enormous amount of money to make this happen.

I should say here that this is all pretty personal for my family. We live in Hartford, site of the Sheff lawsuit and ground zero for the reforms that arose from it. Our daughter is a fifth-grader at Noah Webster School. In the decade before Sheff, white flight from Hartford’s public schools reached a tipping point, and Webster, which had long served the city’s relatively well-off West End, lost all its middle-class white students. In the 2000s, reconfigured as one of the new magnet schools, Webster reversed this trend by opening itself to students from the well-heeled suburbs. The draws at Webster for suburban parents included a sparkling new building renovation, the prospect of a vibrantly multicultural experience, and – not least -- a free pre-K program, beginning at age two or three, generally not offered in their towns’ systems. By dint of all this, the school managed to boost its white student population up to the 25% mandated in the Sheff implementation agreement. When our daughter entered in 2008 as a two-year-old, she was part of that new white cohort.

To some extent, the Sheff plan worked. Walk into Noah Webster, and you see a thriving and diverse community of students. (The teaching staff is overwhelmingly white, but that’s another story.) Regarding academic achievement, the school routinely reports test scores that well exceed the citywide average, and it has won national magnet-school awards for excellence. For my wife and me as parents, the experience our daughter has had growing up in a real American melting pot of class, race and ethnicity has been invaluable.

But there’s a downside. The biggest problem is that the “magnetization” of urban public schools in Connecticut is badly incomplete. Yes, for fifteen years, there’s been a rollout of sparkling new magnet schools. But admission works by lottery, and in many cases your chances of your child getting into the school you want are small. Here in Hartford, only about 25% of the city’s students attend these schools, which means that 75% attend the so-called neighborhood schools, some of which remain notable for the parlous condition of their facilities and a stark record of student underperformance and disciplinary distress. Critics blast the Ivy-ization of our public school system, with über-schools for the lucky few, while the majority is consigned to schools that some call “failure factories.”

It’s not surprising that there’s been a backlash, organized around an insistence that the “neighborhood schools” have been neglected, and that they could and should be as good as the magnet schools. That insistence animates Judge Moukawsher’s opinion in the new ruling. Interestingly, it would seem to push back against a central tenet of the ruling in Sheff and the magnet-school mandate that proceeded from it: namely, that racial integration is a good in itself, one synonymous with improved educational opportunity and quality.

For my part, I tend to accept this tenet. But I know African-American parents who find the very idea obnoxious, and I can see why. You mean, our school can’t be excellent unless we import white students into it? Yet this was indeed the core idea behind Sheff, and for two reasons: first, that the presence of white suburban students tends to draw better resources, and second, that placing higher-achieving students among lesser-achieving ones will draw them up, to the benefit of all.

Has that worked? Assessing the magnet schools and their record of achievement is harder than you might think. Noah Webster School prides itself on test scores that are among the highest in the city (“Sheff Students Outperform Those in City Schools,” read the headline of a Hartford Courant article a couple of years ago.) Such scores would seem to indicate progress in the attempt to close the achievement gap. But a school like Webster is composed of a relatively big parcel of suburban kids, plus a few city kids (like our daughter) from educationally-advantaged backgrounds, plus a larger cohort of Hartford minority students whose parents are especially involved in their kids education and have figured out how to navigate a complex school-choice system. So does Webster score high because the teaching there has truly raised the level of achievement -- or merely because a higher-performing population was assembled there? If the latter, then magnet schools, however well intentioned, may be simply replicating the problem they set out to solve.

These questions raise still larger ones. To what extent is the vast gulf in educational achievement between poor and wealthy communities in states like Connecticut the result of disparities in the quality of education, as opposed to the disparities in wealth and resources that exist in families, neighborhoods and towns? How large are what educators call “outside-school” factors in comparison with teaching? Even if you posit the supreme importance of what teachers do in the classroom, how does their leverage on children’s lives and fates weigh in comparison with the realities of enormous discrepancies in family structures, income, social and intellectual and human capital, health, and so on?  

This question is important because it sets the horizon for what we can legitimately expect schools to accomplish. Are we asking schools -- and teachers -- to do the impossible, to solve problems that in the final analysis they can’t be expected to solve? To what extent are the inequities created by poverty fixable by education?

A few years back I put these questions to the head of a Hartford nonprofit that works on school reform. Yes, he answered, we are asking schools and teachers to do the impossible. When I asked if he thought we should stop, he emailed back: “No, because schools are the only medium where we can even begin to address the problems caused by cycle after cycle of poverty. Good luck getting public policy to address those areas of our lives.” I get what he meant. While Americans are willing to accept gross inequality across a depressingly wide range of venues, we instinctively choke on the idea that public schools might merely serve to magnify the disadvantages some children are born into. Schools are the only real tool in the toolkit that Americans are reliably willing to use, in other words. And trying to rebuild a house with only a hammer is better than having no tools at all.

In Connecticut, Judge Moukawsher’s ruling in the new case bids goodbye to Sheff and inaugurates a new era of school reform whose shape and extent remain unclear. His opinion holds that the mantra of “local control” in education has become a shibboleth that should be examined critically and perhaps discarded. To that end, some here are calling for the state to eliminate local school districts and establish eight county-based districts, structurally integrating richer and poorer towns and cities. In theory, such a regionalizing of school systems could fix structural funding inequities while integrating the schools, creating on a widespread basis the kind of beneficial diversity our daughter has experienced for these seven years -- a diversity reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, in its various affirmative action rulings, as a proper goal for education and its institutions.  

Will it happen? The education nonprofit I mentioned, Achieve Hartford, announced last week that “the impending war between the ‘have’ towns and the ‘have-not’ cities is one that can’t happen soon enough, as the future of our State depends on how that war is fought and won.” (The group’s website  has a summary of the ruling, with helpful links to various analyses.  A good summary article in The New Yorker, by a Yale Law School researcher, is here.  And for any of you working on a PhD on the topic, the actual 90-page opinion by Moukawsher is here.)  Reducing local control in order to move toward a more progressive vision of educational equity – it’s not going to be an easy climb. But the new ruling lays the groundwork for it.

“To get rid of an irrational policy,” the judge wrote, “adapt a rational one.” He gave the state six months to come up with it. While Governor Dannel Malloy supported this lawsuit a decade ago – when he was mayor of the city of Stamford – lo and behold, his attorney general announced a few days ago that the state will appeal. Some have criticized that decision as hypocrisy or stonewalling. But maybe the state is just taking a minute to catch a big breath, knowing that the dive ahead will have to be deep.



Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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