Connecticut schools: unequal – and now unconstitutional

Connecticut is the most unequal state by income distribution, and that shows up in its public schools. Now, a new legal ruling is forcing the state to reconsider how to deal with those challenges.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Third-grade students at Roosevelt School work on reading comprehension on May 19, 201,6 in Bridgeport, Conn. Connecticut, the wealthiest state, also has the greatest levels of inequality in its schools.

At midday, the brightly lit corridors throng with hundreds of students in red and black polo shirts. Aspirational slogans – All Of Us Will Learn, Attitude Is Everything – are stuck on the walls and the clocks that count down to the next class. Students move deftly between classrooms, no yelling or pushing. The whole thing takes four minutes.

This is what a turnaround school in a tough town looks like. Teacher morale is up. Suspensions are way down. Students at East Hartford Middle School are starting to test better: Last year, the majority gained more than a grade in reading, and 38 percent reached proficiency by summer recess. That's despite some classrooms where students double up because there aren't enough desks to go around.

But that still means 6 in 10 – in a student body of 1,100 – are failing to meet grade-level standards. And as they advance and continue to underperform, the gap between this school and those in nearby suburban districts grows even wider.

Here in the richest state in the union, the inequities of public education, which 19th-century educator and lawmaker Horace Mann called “the balance wheel of the social machinery,” are laid bare. Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps between rich and poor students. It is also the most unequal state by income distribution, skewed between its wealthy, mostly-white suburbs and downtrodden cities of poor minorities.

On Wednesday, a Connecticut judge ruled that the state's allocation of educational funds was unconstitutional and gave the state 180 days to come up with a remedy. The ruling, while limited to Connecticut, addresses a problem that is nationwide.

Low-income children of color can and do succeed in America’s public schools. But “the odds are really stacked against you if you grow up in a poor district,” says Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford University in California who studies poverty and inequality.

In a recent study of state test scores from 2009 to 2013, Professor Reardon found that in the poorest 1,000 school districts nationally only 68, mostly small districts, scored at or above the national average. In the richest 1,000 districts, all but 16 districts scored higher. On average, students in the richest districts gained almost a year of academic achievement between third and eighth grade compared with those in the poorest districts, meaning that the gap widened as children moved through school.

Reardon and other researchers at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis have found that the achievement gap by race has narrowed significantly since the 1970s, though not in all states. At the same time, the socioeconomic gap between students and districts has widened, mirroring an overall increase in income inequality and economic segregation. And this gap isn’t just a problem for the poor: Reardon identifies a growing divide between the wealthy and middle-income households, as rich parents pour resources into their children’s development and cluster together in enclaves that are unaffordable to average earners.

“The gap between the middle class and the poor isn’t much bigger than it was in the 1970s. It’s the gap between the middle class and the rich that’s really grown,” he says.

Defaulting on a constitutional duty?

In Connecticut, these inequities are under a legal spotlight. A coalition of mayors, educators, and parents sued the state in 2005 for failing to provide an adequate education for all students, regardless of where they lived. Connecticut’s attorney general argued that districts have adequate funding from property taxes plus state and federal dollars, and that spending more would not necessarily improve test scores in underperforming schools.

After a five-month trial in which Bridgeport's superintendent spoke about not having enough paper or pencils to give students, while Windham Public Schools testified about teaching elementary school students in locker rooms or closets in makeshift classes, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued Wednesday a wide-reaching indictment of how the state spends its education dollars. He read from the bench for more than two hours a verdict that could have far-reaching implications for how Connecticut educates its low-income students.

He ruled that the state hadn't violated its constitution in how much it spends on education but that its formula for allocating funding to school districts was unconstitutional. He set a 180-day deadline for the state to present a more rational formula. 

"Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty," he said. 

Justice Moukawsher said that the state had large inequities – "some schools soar but others sink" – and noted that poor districts had suffered cuts in allocations. He also mandated that Connecticut's department of education create a new high school graduation standard, also to be presented within 180 days. He said the state had broken “its constitutional promise of free secondary education by making it meaningless” for poor students who graduated without adequate skills.The state is expected to appeal.

In a sweeping ruling, the judge also gave the state 180 days to propose a new system for hiring and evaluating teachers, principals, and superintendents.

One ZIP Code over

East Hartford is among the districts that joined the lawsuit. A working-class suburb of Hartford, the capital itself ranked among the state’s lowest income cities, its population has changed within a generation from being mostly white to majority black and Latino, just like Hartford. The interplay of race and class is apparent in East Hartford’s student body – 85 percent minority – and the number who qualify for free or subsidized lunches – 72 percent. The latter standard is often used to measure poverty in a school district.

In 1996, Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled that Hartford’s all-minority schools were unconstitutional, which led to a desegregation program based on building magnet schools that could attract nonwhite students from surrounding districts. While the program has created some integrated schools, the impact on East Hartford has been less salutary: More than 1,000 of its students have moved to the magnet schools, often the most engaged and motivated families, says Nathan Quesnel, the superintendent of schools. And the district loses part of the per-pupil funding, which follows those students to the magnet schools, further squeezing its budget.

Those left behind include students requiring special education and those from family “situations that are much tougher. You start concentrating further and even deeper in public school the challenges that poverty brings. It doesn’t make sense,” says Mr. Quesnel.

During the school-funding trial, he spoke about his financial challenges and compared them with those of districts with larger tax bases. "I want the resources for East Hartford that I see literally one ZIP Code over,” he told the court.

'It takes a parent. You gotta be all in.'

Across town at the Anna Norris Elementary School, Quana Smith is picking up her daughter, Lamiyah, who has just started third grade. Children stream out into the bright sunshine, boarding buses or walking arm-in-arm with parents or grandparents. 

Ms. Smith, a single mom who works at an insurance office, entered the lottery for a Hartford magnet school but didn't win a slot, so Lamiyah is back at her neighborhood school.

Smith says she's fine with that. Lamiyah is happy at the school. Her reading, which had been a struggle, improved in leaps and bounds last year. And Smith believes that she can make a difference, wherever her daughter enrolls. "It takes a parent. You gotta be all in," she says. 

Quesnel says when he goes to suburban schools, he sees what more they offer their students: better facilities, more elective classes, field trips. But he also takes note of what they don’t have to provide. No hot breakfasts or dinners for hungry children. No trauma counseling for victims of violence. No vaccinations for kids whose parents didn’t make it to the doctor’s appointment.

“In East Hartford we’re going to fill your basic need. But this is not about your basic need. It’s about trying to catch you back up. In East Hartford that’s not happening,” he says.

He understands the state’s position: More money for schools means less money for other programs, because Connecticut's budget is in deficit. And he supports Hartford’s efforts to integrate its schools by race and ethnicity, even though it has hurt enrollment in his district.

Since 2012, the year that Quesnel began as superintendent, East Hartford has received millions of dollars in extra funding for support services and remedial classes under two state programs aimed at turning around struggling schools.

There are encouraging signs of progress, says Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Educational Reform, a nonprofit that has worked with East Hartford to implement one of the state programs. But he warns that the concentration of poverty in urban districts creates its own challenges that are beyond the control of school principals, such as violent neighborhoods and transient households.

“The capacity of teachers to meet the needs of kids in their class becomes very taxed when you have a large group of students coming with great stresses in their life experience,” says Mr. Villar, who spent more than two decades as a teacher and administrator in Connecticut

For teachers, large groups of restless students are a challenge. But then there's a kid like Nathan, an attentive sixth-grader in a red polo shirt whose hand shoots up whenever the teacher in his class asks a question. What do we use reading for? "Reading our test results," he says, smiling.  

Nathan is the youngest of three boys, all in the public school system. During the orientation class, in which students are grouped at tables and asked to quietly read a book, Nathan picks out a copy of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," which he's read before. It's good, but not his favorite – that would be the Boxcar Children Books, which he quickly summarizes.  

Asked about his future career, he says he wants to be an engineer or inventor, though he's not sure which. "I could do the inventing and give the idea to someone else. Or I could do it myself," he says. 

A sinkhole 

Before becoming superintendent, Quesnel was the principal at East Hartford Middle School. When he arrived in 2007, the school was a sinkhole – torn posters on the walls, teachers in ripped pants, absenteeism barely noticed. Nine principals had come and gone in the previous 12 years.

By the time he left five years later, the school had changed course and won back the trust of students and parents, who had seen the school as one to avoid, if possible. “I think we slowly began to transform a culture to have pride in our school, to care about kids first,” he says.

Anthony Menard, his deputy, moved up to principal and continues to press a can-do message of achievement. Beside each teacher’s name in the classrooms is the university that he or she attended, reinforcing the idea of higher education as a goal. Students are grouped into teams named for Connecticut universities, including Yale.

Connecticut has introduced a Common Core curriculum and began testing students in 2014-15. The second year of results, released last month, saw some struggling districts make gains that were above the state average on the tougher tests. The overall percentage of students who met the English standard was 56 percent, up 3.3 percentage points; in math, it was 44 percent, up 3.9 points.

For East Hartford Middle School, it was a less rosy picture. Only 29 percent met the standard for English. On math it was 12 percent. Gains were modest. And, as Quesnel recognizes, schools in other districts aren’t standing still: Every year that East Hartford stumbles, the gap widens.

Upstairs in a small classroom, eight minority students sit two to a desk, flanked by rows of computers. This is math intervention, a rescue mission for 8th-graders who are flunking and, judging by their get-me-out-here slumps, don’t appreciate the mission.

Dana Schreiber, their teacher, has seen it before. With his high forehead, thinning gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he has the purring voice of Kevin Spacey and brings some of that intensity to remedial math. The challenge isn’t fractions and prime numbers but confidence and attitude, he says, as his students fill out a handwritten assessment. “The main problem right now is trust and respect,” he says, pulling out charts that show the progress of his previous classes.

These students are among 50 or more in each grade who get an extra hour daily of math for one semester, the kind of costly intervention that Quesnel wants for all his schools. For now, it’s covered by one of the state programs.

Mr. Schreiber, who has to pull one male student out of the class for talking back during the test, knows that math seems intractable to these kids. But he’s sure that he coax them slowly to raise their game and start to score above 50 percent in class tests. At that point, students start asking if they can take the test again because they realize what they got wrong. “That’s when I know I’ve got them,” he says.

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