In Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, the Connecticut Superior Court cast a spotlight on education inequality in Connecticut. The current funding system is irrational and must be changed. But without changing the laws and policies that concentrate poverty and disadvantage in some districts and wealth and opportunity in others, funding fixes alone won’t work.
The superior court recognized that courts cannot dictate school finance. All they can do is demand that funding be “rationally, sensibly, and verifiably connected to teaching children.” Irrationality, moreover, must be “proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” But Connecticut did not pass even this generous test. The state adopted a funding formula after the Connecticut Supreme Court declared education a fundamental right in Horton v. Meskill, but “has never gotten near” meeting what the formula demands. And beginning in 2013, the legislature tossed out the formula altogether, just giving districts what it somehow deemed appropriate.
Funding irrationality, the court found, exists alongside desperately unequal results. Students in Connecticut have the highest average scores in the country—the entire country—on the National Assessment of Educational Proficiency. But poor students do worse on those same tests than poor students in 40 out of 50 states. In other words, our public school system is producing results that are the very best on average in the United States, and among the very worst for our poor students. This failure harms our communities and our economy, and belies Connecticut’s commitment to justice.
But fixing school finance is not enough unless we also address the laws and policies that concentrate poverty in some school districts and keep poor families from moving into others. Connecticut has both some of the highest per capita incomes and the poorest cities in America. A 2015 report by DataHaven shows that Connecticut also has some of the greatest income segregation in the country. Opportunity mapping by the Open Communities Alliance and its partners shows that very high-opportunity areas, like West Hartford, exist right next to very low-opportunity areas, like Hartford.
The law is partly to blame. Zoning rules limiting multifamily housing allow wealthy districts to keep out lower-income residents. When jurisdictions like Bridgeport and New Haven receive vouchers and funding for affordable housing, they often can only use them in the city, rather than in thriving suburbs over the border. Even when geographic limits are lifted, the amounts set for housing vouchers are typically far below the rents in high-opportunity areas. The state has the power to change this, and it must to avoid yet another decision that its education system violates the Connecticut Constitution.
Attending mixed-income school districts cuts the achievement gap for low-income children in half, and at a lower cost than educating them in high-poverty school districts. Diverse classrooms, studies show, produce better results for all children. So long as people with more wealth and political power are concentrated in particular school districts, moreover, the legislature will continue to make decisions like it did in 2016, when it cut $5 million from the poorest school districts, and increased by $5 million aid to the wealthiest ones. We will continue to accept a system which forces Bridgeport to cancel all school busses, leaving small children to figure out bus transfers to get to school. Wealthier families will continue to move outside our cities, taking their tax dollars and political power with them.
Connecticut can do better, and it should, to create the kind of state that we want, and that our children deserve. •