Our state’s recent gubernatorial contest rightly featured a robust back and forth over the health and funding of Connecticut’s K-12 education system. As a parent and education advocate, I could not be happier to see these issues on full display, because I know how important great schools are to the civic and economic future of our state.
I am heartened that both candidates saw reason to feature education issues prominently in their campaigns. Now that the election is behind us, the hard work of translating those words into bold action begins.
In every corner of Connecticut there are thriving public schools that provide students with the opportunities and skills needed for lifelong success. These public schools, like Eli Whitney Elementary School (Stratford), Carmen Arace Intermediate School and Middle School (Bloomfield), Park City Prep (Bridgeport), or Multicultural Magnet School (Bridgeport), approach education with the attitude that high academic achievement is possible for all students, not just those who come from more fortunate circumstances. These pockets of excellence are proof that when schools focus on the needs of students — and provide them with the right resources and great educators — they can produce remarkable results, especially for our most vulnerable low-income students and students of color.
Unfortunately, too few students in our state have access to schools like this. The more common story, especially for schools serving low-income and minority students, is one of chronic and persistent failure. Worse, this story is no accident. We are knowingly trapping many of our most vulnerable students in failing schools year after year after year.
Across Connecticut, there are nearly 40,000 children attending 63 schools where nearly all students are below grade level in reading or math. On average, nearly 90 percent of students at these schools are Black or Hispanic and live in low-income households. To be clear, that’s nearly 40,000 children who are stuck in broken schools where they are not learning to read, write or do math — nearly 40,000 children we are knowingly failing again and again.
All of us, no matter where we live, are impacted by this persistent — and needless — failure. And the costs are extreme, with billions of dollars lost in lifetime earnings, significantly increased healthcare costs and tens of millions of dollars flowing into state prisons rather than into the state’s economy.
But the costs are more than economic. They are also moral.
Everyday, our system knowingly subjects our most vulnerable students to inadequate schools that are not preparing students to succeed. Worse, our outdated state policies limit great educators’ ability to do what it takes to meet student needs and prevent far too many students and their parents from seeking a higher performing school. As a result, we ensure that whole communities will remain trapped in cycles of poverty and disempowerment.
But, we don’t have to accept this as the status quo. This problem is solvable. It will, however, require our leaders to unite around bold and proactive solutions and for us to move past the pitfalls of the tired, old debates that only offer false choices. To give all of Connecticut’s students a chance to succeed, we must move past the arguments that suggest one can’t possibly be for increasing education options and also for better educator compensation or for raising student performance and supporting children’s social and emotional development. These either/or debates have only paralyzed our efforts to improve schools.
It’s time to stop the ideological wars and work together to give the 40,000 kids currently trapped in chronically failing schools and all of our children a better future, starting now. We must enact bold change to improve education for all children and ensure Connecticut remains a place where people want to live and work.
Jennifer Alexander is the CEO of ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now).
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