A long time ago, Puritans carved out the boundaries of their towns by how far away someone could live from the church and still get to the sermon on time. Today, those arbitrary boundaries are also the limits of most of our school districts, meaning the kind of education your child gets depends on which side of the line your house sits.
This is deeply unjust, and it needs to end.
Back in 2011 a mother from Bridgeport was arrested for stealing education. Her crime, which drew national attention, was sending her son to school in a town she didn’t live in. That case was all kinds of ridiculous. Everyone eventually got into the weeds of debating what counts as homeless and whether crossing district lines is technically stealing, but they ignored the big problem, which is that too many districts are by nature exclusionary.
Can you imagine if a mother from Norwalk had sent her son to Bridgeport schools instead? Would she have been arrested and then had her name dragged through the mud by the press? Would people have accused her of “stealing” education? I doubt it. The wealthier towns and the highly-rated school districts that go along with them don’t have borders so much as walls.
Toni Gold of the Connecticut Main Street Center wrote an excellent piece in the Courant this week about just this. I’ll quote her, because she deserves quoting for this line about our system of independent towns: “What we’re unwilling to face is that our venerable, beloved and ancient history has been killing us — starting with our cities — while still protecting (for now) the most affluent and least needy.”
The towns didn’t invent the separation of communities and school districts based on race, class, and income level. White flight and the concentration of poverty in the inner cities wasn’t confined to New England, either. But our system of pint-sized towns and co-extensive school districts made those sins of post-war America far more rigid and difficult to combat.
This has everything to do with schools. Think about the backlash to busing of students from Hartford to the suburbs. Think of how many parents in the cities do everything they can to get their kids out of the neighborhood school into a magnet or a charter school. The rich districts may as well be fortresses.
Also, the vast majority of money any town spends is on education. Wealthier towns can absorb that cost while keeping taxes low. Poor towns and cities can’t.
Our jumble of school districts favor the wealthy and punish the poor. They are arbitrary, costly, and unjust. They are wasteful, because administration is wholly duplicated from town to town. And they are uneven; as Judge Thomas Moukawsher noted in his excellent ruling against the pitiful state of our educational system, “The standards at issue here are casualties of the state’s view that education is by right a local affair. This has left most of the key state standards trying to look like statewide rules while being little more than guidance.” In short, each district does things its own way.
And that says nothing for school boards themselves. Sometimes they are comprised of citizens lending their knowledge and expertise. But too often they’re made up of local politicians who have no real understanding of the increasing complexity of educational policy, and they are far too vulnerable to the petty slap fights of town and city politics.
Enough. The state should abolish local school districts and assume control of public education directly.
I can hear you sputtering. But there’s nothing in our constitution saying that towns should have control over the schools. In fact, quite the opposite — the state constitution specifically gives the General Assembly the mandate to provide free public education.
What good is local control? Does it really make districts more accountable to voters? I very much doubt it. Quick — name your board of education members. Can you tell me which policies they support? Have you ever gone to a meeting? If so, you’re in the vast minority.
This is a matter of racial, social, and economic justice. The local districts stand in the way. They must go.
Let’s create a single district that covers the entire state. Let’s make it easier for the state to better regulate the hiring and firing of teachers. And let’s allow those students caught in pockets of poverty and violence a way out through a better, more robust system that finally allows them to cross those arbitrary town lines with ease.
Only then will we be able to start really reforming education in this state.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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