On Wednesday, the state board of education decided in a narrow vote to remove Bridgeport’s elected board and replace it with an appointed one of their own choosing. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Hartford’s schools were similarly taken over by the state in the late 1990s. The situation and players are different, but the basic problems of dysfunctional politics and broken schools are the same.
On it’s most fundamental level, this is a story of local politics gone horribly, horribly wrong. Apparently the takeover happened largely because the board members were more interested in fighting than actually tackling the issues facing the district; the board majority actually requested the takeover. The state’s action is, according to Mayor Bill Finch, a way of calming things down. If you say so. Naturally there are plenty of people crying foul, and I think we can all expect the lawsuits to start rolling in any minute now. For the moment, though, the state has replaced an elected municipal board, something about which I have very mixed feelings.
There are other levels to this story, though, and at every one of them there is systemic failure and rot.
Part of the problem in Bridgeport is that there’s no money. The city suffers enough from the kind of constant budget crisis most Connecticut cities deal with, which stems in part from a desperate need for government services. Add in a long history of fiscal mismanagement and general incompetence, and it’s no surprise that taxes are among the highest around. The city is currently struggling to cut the budget, which is part of what led to the board of education’s self-destruction. Maybe the state can replace the city council and mayor, too.
Then there’s the district itself. Bridgeport is one of the lowest performing districts in the state, no matter what metric you apply. The dropout rate is appalling, standardized test scores are low, state goals are not met, and nothing ever really seems to make it better.
So what to do? One idea I keep hearing is that kids should be taken out of failing schools, and that parents should have more choices. That sounds like something that ought to work, and hey, we all saw Waiting for Superman, right? Except that magnet and charter schools don’t actually outperform their public school counterparts the vast majority of the time, and, when socioeconomic and demographic factors are accounted for, student performance by and large doesn’t improve. There are exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions. Why? Because the root cause of the problem is not “bad schools” or incompetent administrators and boards of education, but the intersection of race, class, economics, crime and poverty.
I worked as a substitute teacher in several school districts a decade ago, including Simsbury and Bloomfield. These towns share a border, but the differences between the wealthy, whiter Simsbury district and the poorer, 95 percent-minority Bloomfield one were stark. In our society, divisions of race and class can lead to monstrous inequalities and the sort of problems that arise when racial, social and economic parity is simply out of reach. It takes a toll on kids. I remember listening while other teachers rattled off a litany of problems certain kids had to deal with: coming to school hungry, absent parents, jailed relatives, unsafe neighborhoods, and on and on. It was worse over the border in Hartford. Inequality, crime and poverty are the problems America ignores, and no standardized test, charter school, well-intentioned teacher evaluation scheme or state takeover will fix them.
This is the most disgraceful failure of all, bred by decades of neglect, greed and selfishness at all levels of government. If we really want to fix our schools—and we desperately need to fix them if we want to compete in the global economy—we must also address economic, social and racial inequality.
The takeover by the state of Bridgeport’s schools is a minor symptom of these larger problems. The message is clear, though: both the political and educational systems are badly broken. A year or two under state control won’t fix that, though maybe now the governor and legislature are paying more attention. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said that 2012’s session will be about education reform, which is a good start. I challenge the governor and the legislature to find bold new ways to fix not just the broken systems that led to the collapse of the Bridgeport board of education, but the persistent problems of poverty and inequality that perpetuate them.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.