Inside Connecticut's Education-Funding Turmoil

Talk about money and test scores often obscures the hopes and struggles of the people who form under-resourced school communities.

The outside of a high school
East Hartford High School (Provided by Matthew Ryan)

Late last summer, my family relocated from a more urban area to a small, tree-lined town in Connecticut, renowned for its great schools and colonial town center. The move meant our eldest daughter, just entering second grade, would have access to a top-rated school district. The school she attends has opened up a world of experiences: smaller classes, daily “specials” like art and music, and access to amazing cultural and enrichment activities that appeal to her curious spirit. I am buoyed by the high-achieving, cheerful school community she is a part of, but also made uneasy by how different her experience is than what is available a few towns over, in “underserved” districts such as the one I graduated from and the one my mother taught in for nearly 30 years.

Often known for its picturesque New England towns and wealth along the Gold Coast commuter line to New York City, Connecticut is a small state with one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the country. Twenty minutes tend to separate leafy mansions from struggling inner cities, or bucolic homes from decaying industrial outposts. With income disparity has long come de facto racial segregation, acknowledged in the 1996 Sheff vs. O’Neill decision that called for the desegregation of the majority black and Latino Hartford Public School system, the district my mother served for decades.

Two decades later the changes prompted by that decision have often come up short for neighborhood schools. In an echo of the Sheff vs. O’Neill decision, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford recently ruled on a lawsuit filed in 2005 by some of Connecticut’s most underserved districts, declaring that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to provide all children with an adequate education given the state’s patchwork approach to school funding, one heavily reliant on property taxes and local control. The decision cites Sam Savage’s “flaw of averages” and notes that, despite high average test scores across the state, the poorest children are concentrated in less than one-fifth of municipalities. In a lengthy and unflinching decision that is currently on appeal, Moukawsher gave the state 180 days to come up with a more equitable funding plan.

East Hartford, the school district from which I received my diploma, is implicated in the suit, and I felt an unexpected surge of conflicting emotions following Moukawsher’s decision. I felt anxiety about what a funding restructure would mean for my own children’s education. But I also remember vividly the keen awareness of being a student in East Hartford in the 1990s. Back then, the district had a gang problem and a notable police presence. Our test scores kept administrators up at night, and rising poverty meant more need for specialized services. Amid emerging challenges, our teachers gave us an excellent education in a dynamic and engaged school community. Yet we understood all too well that our experience was far different from that of students in “better” towns just a few miles away—a tangible contrast with intangible effects.

The narrative was, and remains, that to be from a poorer district was equivalent to a mental and even spiritual poverty, that to be middle class and above was a marker of virtue and worth. In some circles, when I say, “I went to East Hartford schools,” a sheepish comment about my doctorate and professional work will often follow, the implication being that people from a working-class town don’t achieve these things, even though many of us do. Those who live in the daily reality of recent court decisions tend to be spoken of simply as “they” and remain invisible, the stories of their schools and towns flattened. They are students and educators alike lost in the shuffle of demographic breakouts, news stories, budget lines, and test scores—problems to be fixed rather than people to be served. The social and emotional impact of undergoing schooling in a high-needs place is profound, but not often addressed. Everyone is so concerned with numbers that how the children imagine themselves, the narratives about their lives they hold to be true, gets lost.

It was from a desire to seek visibility and dimension that I found myself back at East Hartford High School this past winter, nearly two decades after graduating. The 2015-16 State of the Schools Report for East Hartford showed the district as 85 percent nonwhite, 71 percent on free or reduced-price lunch, 14 percent English learners, and 12 percent in special education—the typical characteristics of an “urban district.” I wanted to hear firsthand what it is to work and learn in one of Connecticut’s 30 Alliance districts, which receive targeted funding from the state. I met with students, administrators, and teachers alike, hoping to weave together a tapestry of the faces behind the numbers.

I first met with a group of 10th-grade honors students, all black or Latino. They are the current students of Tim Reid, my own beloved chemistry teacher. As the school’s most academically engaged kids looked up at me warily, I set aside many of my questions and let them talk about life in this time and place, about being 15 or 16. I told them I, too, sat where they sat.

I remember well being that girl, the one determined to sail past the obstacles, eating dinner by candlelight because my mother had paid my deposit for college rather than the month’s electric bill. I smiled at the memory, at the unflappable reflections of myself staring back at me in that classroom. These students have ambitions, clear and real, but may also face obstacles that go beyond school funding. The crushing weight of just getting through daily life while economically stressed is difficult to articulate unless lived.

As with any conversation about education in lower-income areas, underfunding is seen as the source of most problems, especially by students. Joy commented that “we’re in an AP class without textbooks and we have to photocopy them, which sucks.” Kenny, whose quiet and methodical observations often grounded the discussion, noted that, “Throughout my life I’ve only heard of budget cuts from schools, I haven’t heard of any raises or more funding.” Boatemaa commented that, “A majority of the people in this town need a free lunch and so we don’t have a lot to offer [financially] …  we don’t have a lot to offer, and yet they want to take so much from us.”

Boatemaa’s remark led to a few rounds of “we don’t have a lot to offer” being repeated, its meaning having subtly changed over the course of the conversation. Less than is such a recurring theme in the lives of some students that it all too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The students also expressed frustration at their limited agency, a feeling of disconnect from those individuals making consequential decisions that affect their everyday lives. “I think that the people who make the decisions about the budget have never stepped foot in a classroom as an educator,” Sandra said. “I feel like they shouldn’t make decisions on what we need to spend money on if they have never spent a day with us.”

That these students may have internalized insecurities is not surprising given that they must balance immense academic expectations with fewer resources, and often little access to the arenas in which they are expected to compete. As honors students in a district facing hardship, they all expressed pressure to perform even as kids in other districts are presumed better, with many first-generation immigrant kids feeling that their parents’ hopes and dreams rested on their success.

The nuances of working with kids in a higher-needs environment are all too familiar to administrators as well. East Hartford Schools Superintendent Nathan Quesnel and EHHS Principal Matt Ryan separately affirmed many of the insights that I could intuit as an adolescent but could only articulate as an adult. Both Quesnel and Ryan readily acknowledged the challenges—some academic, many not—that the district faces when compared with its wealthier neighbors. Oftentimes, social or emotional needs, such as fear stemming from an unstable home life, must be fulfilled before academic disparities can be tackled. Ryan also said the entrenched stereotypes of poverty can hang over the classroom: “Our kids come to us with a variety of needs, and they start way behind the starting line where a more affluent child is starting from,” Quesnel said. “[It requires] advanced teaching to get a child through fear, trauma, potential substance abuse in the home, or the instability of transiency. Then you start talking about the academic needs.” Ryan, in a separate interview, echoed that sentiment: “The number one misconception is that the kids are tougher or that with that ‘toughness’ comes they are less than,” Ryan said.“It should be, if I come from a place of poverty, I just need more help … I just need more steps to get there.”

East Hartford has just over $13,000 each year for each student’s education, one of the lowest expenditure totals in the state. Quesnel noted that these lagging resources create an endless cycle of academic deficit, as students who start with less are also given less. The funding decisions the students felt abstracted from are similarly frustrating for educators on the front lines. Ryan, who provided testimony on behalf of the town in the recent court case, described the process as a series of impossible choices: “[The judge] would make me decide between this or this—‘do you need your intervention reading teacher or another section of AP English 4?’ … Well I don’t want to choose, I need both; actually I need more of both.”

Education, however, is more than what occurs in school, and the roots of academic success are far more complex than simply the bottom line. Outcomes are also affected by challenges affecting a community as a whole, and pressures faced by students outside of school that eventually hit at the heart of academic assessments: “By grade three, just over 60 percent of our kids are on track,” Quesnel said. “We know by grade three what the projections are for graduation rates and, ultimately, incarceration rates, and we start to see the line continue to get wider and wider between what our kids can do and what kids in more affluent areas can do.”

This line is further exacerbated by diminishing cultural and extracurricular activities, “extras” like arts education and music that expand a child’s breadth of thinking, which are cut to allow for the maintenance of critical reading specialists, math tutors, or special-education teachers. Any innovation or programming beyond the bare bones budget typically has to come through the support of grants, which administrators and faculty chase every year. But grants are fragile components of a piecemeal funding ecosystem. Anne Marie Mancini, the assistant superintendent, admits that, “in the back of my mind I’m thinking … will everything we have built go away, or can we chase another grant?” Seeking external funding is a tactic teachers also know well, as many younger teachers regularly crowdfund classroom projects, long ago abandoning the belief that district funds would arrive.

These creative solutions, the late nights, and the personal investment demonstrate the commitment and generosity with which educators in similar districts approach their work—my mother used to pack meals every day to make sure her students were all fed; my philosophy teacher would leave her office door unlocked in the evenings should any of us need a safe place to be. As Ryan and I spoke, he paused to attend to a nervous young man who shuffled into his office. He asked the boy if he had signed up for an upcoming SAT-prep class, noting gently that it was free of cost. Gaze low, the boy muttered an acquiescence to give the test a try. I watched the young man leave the room, his tall imposing frame betraying the vulnerability in his demeanor, and understood exactly what Ryan meant when he said kids in need aren’t tougher. Instead what so many need is more softness, a willingness to meet them where they are at.

At a time when hard-edged data and assessments drive conversations on education, those in the trenches also invoke the tenderness at the heart of the endeavor. When asked about the possible effect of the lawsuit’s outcome on district funding, Quesnel is hopeful but noncommittal, as the appeal moves forward and jurisdictions challenge one another on just how funds would be reallocated. “In Connecticut, it’s ultimately about the segregation of where we live, and the lack of the sense that these are our kids—that kids in East Hartford are not their kids but our kids—and all of our kids deserve an equitable chance and equitable opportunities. Equity is great to talk about until someone has to give up something.”

Such segregation contributes to the difficulty of this conversation. Wealth and educational attainment are clustered in limited pockets throughout the state, which leads to staggering differences in outcomes that school funding alone cannot fully address. Indeed, sixth graders in the wealthiest districts across the country can be up to four grade levels ahead of children in the most impoverished districts. The high marks for districts such as the one I am now a part of are just as much a function of our laudable educators as they are reflections of a more affluent school population filled with highly educated, engaged parents who expect and foster the same for their children. The opportunities facilitated by such parents are largely out of reach in communities where many are working to make ends meet.

As Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy pushes the state to begin funding restructuring willingly, independently of the courts, change seems at once inevitable and impossible. The state of urban funding hurts, but many critics argue that taking money from more well-to-do municipalities would also place an unfair burden on kids. Substantial state budget cuts, even from better-funded towns, would prove difficult to compensate for without compromising the very elements that are making some school districts successful. Indeed, the latest highly contested redistribution proposal would leave 31 smaller municipalities without any state education aid at all, while cutting aid to others by as much as $24 million. Litigation is likely to continue, making evident that no easy answers are forthcoming.

Looking back, I feel thankful for the educators who acknowledged the intricate challenges some of their students faced, while refusing to allow us to be defined by those hurdles. Many of my classmates and I entered education ourselves as a result of the strength of the community they built around us. I recall my time at East Hartford High School with an appreciation for the diversity of backgrounds I witnessed early on, and gratitude toward those who committed themselves to broadening my view of the world and my place within it. My classmates spoke many languages; our parents came from all walks of life. The knowledge my peers and I held wasn’t always testable, but it was valuable nevertheless.

A few weeks after my initial meetings, I asked my old teacher Tim Reid, who is nearing retirement, what he thought of the changes in the education landscape and what they might mean for districts such as East Hartford. He stirred his coffee and gave a faraway smile. “My classrooms are full of wonderful people, who are the equal of anybody anywhere. We should invest in them,” he said. “Not investing in them doesn’t just diminish them, it diminishes us.”