On Sept. 7, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the Hartford District Superior Court deemed failings in Connecticut’s education system, rooted in funding and accountability, to be unconstitutional. On Sept. 11, New York Times reporters Elizabeth Harris and Kristin Hussey juxtaposed the school districts of Fairfield and Bridgeport. Together, these neighboring districts embody the failures of the State education system.
Fairfield and Bridgeport, joined along a north-south border, exist on the banks of a steep wealth divide. As Harris and Hussey highlighted, the gulf in educational quality hinges on more than demographic statistics.
As a product of the Fairfield system, I was able to dedicate as large a proportion of the waking hours to academics as I desired—a luxury lost to many a town over. Addressing issues in funding equality and teacher assessment is vital, though only a remedy to the few measurable aspects of the larger imbalance.
Statistics reveal a glaring gap in educational quality between Fairfield and Bridgeport is plain to see. In 2013, Bridgeport reached a graduation rate of 67.3 percent, with Fairfield sitting at 92.7 percent for the same year.
Fairfield sixth-graders reading at two grade levels above the national average, while Bridgeport sixth-graders read 1.7 grade levels below average.
However, as noted by Harris and Hussey, during the 2014-15 period, “Bridgeport spent about $14,000 per student while Fairfield spent nearly $16,000…” both well above the national average “which was about $10,800 per student.” Though this gap must be closed, it is clear that remedying funding issues will not erase inequities.
Unwinding the Gordian knot of educational inequality through statistical analysis yields fails to illustrate the impact this rigged framework enforces.
Harris and Hussey noted that at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, “the city cannot afford [buses] for its high school students.” A profiled student, Markus Simmons, rose early to navigate the system of public buses on a trip which took “him about 40 minutes” each day.
Chronic absenteeism is an area of concern for lower-income, urban schools, as this anecdote illustrates, which involves far more than the popular, denigrating narrative of a cultural breakdown. As a student in Fairfield, I never fretted about not having a reliable means of getting to school. Simmons’ narrative provides an example of the handicap students in low-income areas must overcome to simply attend class.
The most recent data estimates median family income as $158,000 in Fairfield and $40,000 in Bridgeport. The Assistant Superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, Dr. Aresta Johnson told Harris and Hussey “Once [students] turn 16, they become eligible to work full-time jobs, and sometimes serve as the sole supporter for their families.”
For most in Fairfield, part-time jobs are mandated by parents during teenage years. This is most often not to support the family, but for experience in earning and saving. In this way, working is a form of independence. The concept is reversed for lower-income youth, where the ability to work a part or full-time job may represent a necessity.
Judge Moukawsher correctly identified the injustice being perpetuated through the State’s current funding scheme for schools. He also ruled the State has failed to impose rigorous standards for achievement, a loophole allowing students to graduate without having attained high-school level skills.
Disparities in educational quality hinge upon economics, but not solely through funding mechanisms and delivery. Even if the legislature manages to overcome partisan and regional differences and amend the State’s educational funding and achievement systems, socioeconomic disparities would persist.
As a student in Fairfield, concerns regarding school centered on exams, college and the sort of issues John Hughes harped on in his films. This is true of most—not all—students in wealthy towns. Tearing down derelict schools, providing reliable transportation and improving teacher quality will go a long way toward making education cities like Bridgeport match that of suburban neighbors.
Until the State manages to appreciate the weight bearing down on the shoulders of students of low-income families, few will be able to afford the ability to give education the undivided attention required to succeed. Examining the difference in experience for students who are literal neighbors may provide the visceral reality needed to quicken the glacial pace of reform.