Recently, leaders in the legislature proposed bills urging consolidation of certain smaller school districts. The backlash was as telling as it was immediate and fierce: threatening the high-achievement school systems that so many people worked so hard to buy their way into is like touching a live wire.
Parents descended on the Capitol for the Education Committee’s hearing last Friday, almost all in opposition to one of several consolidation bills on the agenda. As I sorted through the testimony, I noticed that almost all of the parents in opposition were from wealthy towns with excellent schools. These were the people who felt they had the most to lose.
Many referenced the hardships they’d faced in order to buy a home in their town so their children could attend those schools. They worried that their schools and their children would suffer if their districts were regionalized or consolidated.
And I understand that, I really do. My own parents worked hard to buy a home in a town with good schools so my sister and I could have those advantages. I know a lot of people who are doing the same thing. They’re doing it out of love for their children, because buying a home in a high-achievement district is one of the only ways outside private school to guarantee a quality education in this country. Wouldn’t you do the same if you could?
But it can’t go on like this. Connecticut has too many school districts, and the richest ones are fortresses that have pulled all the ladders up after them while the poorest sink deeper and deeper. Town-based school districts drive wealth inequality and force towns to compete against one another instead of cooperating.
Worst of all, they embody institutionalized and systemic racism. They enforce de facto segregation, which is the toxic legacy of redlining and exclusionary zoning, and we will never be able to move forward until that changes.
This should be news to absolutely nobody here, because in 1989 a group of students from Hartford took the state to court to argue that their constitutional right to an education was being violated by town-based school districts. That case was Sheff vs. O’Neill, and in 1996 the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students and ordered the desegregation of our schools.
That case was brought 30 years ago. Those students are in their 30s and 40s. The state has made some progress by constructing an archipelago of magnet schools where poor minority students can access a quality education through luck instead of wealth. But what about those students who don’t get selected in the lottery? What about everyone left behind?
For them, things are no better. The problem remains the same: a line drawn on a map.
There’s a whole system in place to keep things just the way they are. Real estate prices depend on the schools, because realtors can make loads of money by selling quality schools to desperate parents. Parents groups are vocally opposed to any changes, and lawmakers tout the virtues of local control of schools.
Meanwhile, towns like Wilton, Somers, and Simsbury are the public school equivalent of exclusive private academies. You can send your kids there — if you have enough money. The way that wealth and race work in this country means that the vast majority of students in those districts are white.
Is the regionalization effort Democrats are pushing now the answer? It might be part of it. Right now the bills the legislature are considering wouldn’t make much of a dent in this kind of inequality. They probably won’t even save all that much money, if studies are accurate. But they might be a crack in the wall, and a stepping stone to something greater.
The truth is, we’ve never come close to fulfilling the order to desegregate delivered by the state Supreme Court over 20 years ago. To do that, town-based school districts must be abolished and replaced by districts that are more inclusive and provide better opportunities.
The wealthy will find ways around it. They always do. But we have to try, for ourselves, for our children, and for all the children left behind because we failed to act.
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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