The invited takeover of the Bridgeport Public Schools by the State Board of Education is but the tip of the iceberg. Several other school districts, both large and smaller ones, are watching with an eye to similar action should their own fiscal despair reach that same cannot-open-the-doors breaking point.
The Bridgeport crisis should come as no surprise. Years of gross underfunding, neglectful State Board oversight, and meagerly financed/poorly implemented interventions have finally caught up with the state. Unfortunately, it is our most fragile young people who are paying the price as they experience their formative PK-12 years denied of a meaningful opportunity to prepare for the same bright futures that are expected of their peers elsewhere in Fairfield County and across the Nutmeg State.
More than 98 percent of Bridgeport’s 21,000 schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price meals because of poverty. Nearly all live in households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. (For a family of 3, that’s $18,530 a year, or $464 per week; for a household of 5, that’s $26,170 a year, or $656 per week.) For 40 percent of Bridgeport’s students, English is not the primary language spoken at home; more than 69 different languages must be accommodated by the school district, though just 2,600 students receive direct instructional services supported by bilingual funding. These are shocking statistics that have been a focus of the past 13 years of school finance litigation. The case currently underway, CCJEF v. Rell, filed in 2005, is an education adequacy and equity challenge that last year won a landmark Connecticut Supreme Court decision affirming the constitutional right of all schoolchildren to a quality education and the state’s obligation to ensure same. (That lawsuit is aggressively proceeding to trial as plaintiffs seek to prove that the state indeed has failed to meet its constitutional obligations to schoolchildren.)
Clearly the Bridgeport crisis highlights the urgency of systemic school finance reform in Connecticut. The dominoes have begun to fall. Every Priority School District is at risk, some more immediately than others, along with several small-town school systems whose local property taxpayers are no longer able to carry the heavy local fiscal burden that municipalities have for too long shouldered on behalf of the state.
Governor Malloy needs to accelerate his focus on school finance reform, aimed not only at effecting a long-overdue transformation in how and at what level the public schools are funded, but also to provide the essential resources that struggling disadvantaged students deserve and to avoid further legal action as the dominoes continue to fall
Dianne Kaplan deVries, Ed.D., is the project director of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF).