School Reform in Connecticut
It sometimes seems as if everyone has an opinion on what’s ailing Connecticut public schools, and how to fix them. Accordingly, we’d like to point out what seems to be an obvious problem: Connecticut has way too many school districts. The system is expensive, overpopulated with administrators and filled with redundancies. Isn’t it time we started acting like a state instead of a group of cities and towns?
Even after all the debate and political maneuvering last year, public school reform in Connecticut remains an elusive exercise, especially since it’s trying to impose a 21st-century solution on a 17th-century structure. For it can be argued that the greatest impediment to reform is not the intransigence of teacher unions, the weakness of politicians beholden to those unions, the over-reliance on property taxes to fund our children’s learning, achievement disparities among urban and suburban schools, or a whole host of social issues over which no system can exert control. Rather, it’s our steady-habit refusal to change the inefficient, centuries-old, highly localized organizational structure under which we operate our public education system.
Consider that the basic framework remains mostly intact from the time early Colonists started establishing public schools in the 1600s. As it was over 300 years ago, our towns and cities for the most part form the basic political structure for educating our children, devoting the vast majority of their revenue-raising efforts to funding the endeavor. Excellent schools, after all, are a point of pride in many towns.
Local school boards are, for the most part, used to going it alone, secure in the belief that only they can have their town’s children’s best interests in mind. And in fact, many do a good job. But many districts are feeling the need to try something different.
Enrollments in 70 percent of the state’s districts are decreasing, but even so, costs continue to rise. We seem to have fairly exhausted ways to throw more money at public education. School boards that base budgets primarily on revenue raised through property taxes are meeting resistance. Municipal governing boards, pressured to hold the line on tax increases, now frequently reject what school boards consider bare-bones budgets, forcing even more cuts. To make ends meet, boards have closed schools, laid off teachers, staff and administrators, eliminated core programs as well as electives, and charged for activities that used to be a free part of the educational experience. And they’re still not done.
At the state level, most of the attention on school reform last year focused on the method of evaluating teachers and mitigating disparities in student performance between rich and poor districts. However, buried about a quarter of the way into Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s much-debated 163-page school reform bill were 14 lines out of a total of more than 5,000 that would fund a study on consolidating smaller school districts, and then, in 2016, provide incentives to actually go ahead and do so. As passed, the state Department of Education was required to complete the study by Jan. 1, 2013.
Here is what that study committee will see: Of the state’s 169 municipalities, 149 operate independent school districts. Thirty-two of those contain only one school; 10 more have only two. Beginning in 1937, 27 school districts in groups of two to six towns merged their secondary schools, either junior high and high school or just high school, into eight regional school districts.
Twenty of the state’s smallest municipalities, primarily in the northwest and northeast, do not operate any schools on their own. Between 1953 and 1973, they combined into nine regional districts of two to four towns to educate children from kindergarten through high school.
A few other one- and two-school districts send their kids to neighboring districts’ high schools, paying what amount to tuition fees to those neighboring towns. Still others send their children to one of three independent regional academies—Norwich Free Academy, Woodstock Academy or The Gilbert School in Winsted.
Layered within this basic structure are 16 publicly operated charter schools, 44 full-time magnet schools, six part-time magnet high schools and 17 technical schools.
Put it all together, and what we’ve got is a hodgepodge of 165 school districts that were described last year in a Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) report as “economically inefficient and foster[ing] economic, racial and ethnic isolation.”
What the study committee also will find if they look hard enough into the current setup is money-gobbling duplication in functions ranging from food service to transportation and security that conceivably could be cut by reducing the number of school districts to a more manageable number, and thereby redirecting scarce resources to actually educating kids.
That gets to the core of what the superintendents’ organization is driving at as part of its Educational Transformation Project, especially when it addresses racial and ethnic isolation. Its goal is not merely to give children an opportunity to learn, but to ensure they do learn what they need to know in a 21st- century global environment.
“Every child needs to have an individual learning plan,” says CAPSS director Joseph Cirasuolo. “That means that every child needs to have the program that is best suited for them regardless of where they live. And frankly, there’s not a district in the state that has the capacity to do that.”
“We’re designed to make sure every kid gets a chance to learn,” he continues. “We’re not designed to ensure that every kid learns what they need to know and be able to do. If you have that kind of dramatic change in expectations, you need a fairly dramatic change in the system.”
Okay, Dr. Cirasuolo, we at Connecticut Magazine like a challenge. So we’ll start with your suggestion to look at Fairfax County, Va., as a model for a complete structural overhaul. We agree that countywide districts won’t work in Connecticut, because we’d have to start from scratch. These geographic oddities have no infrastructure on which to build a 21st-century school system.
Instead, we should look to the existing framework of six Regional Education Service Centers that the legislature established over 30 years ago to help school districts find ways to cooperate and collaborate, ultimately to save money but also to help them provide services that individual districts on their own cannot. These six service centers already are saving money for taxpayers in some districts in areas ranging from health care and curriculum, transportation and professional development. So the basics are already there.
The Fairfax County school district is subdivided into eight geographical clusters that each contain two to four high-school pyramids, usually a high school, a middle school and five to eight elementary schools that feed students into the high schools.
In our reorganization, our six new districts will each have 20 to 25 high schools, which we’ll group into clusters of four to five high- school pyramids with geographical proximity the main criterion. This helps eliminate duplication in curriculum—for example, every high school will not need to offer the same advanced placement courses. Instead, specialized courses would be based in specific high schools. One school might focus on math and the sciences, another on history and literature or music and the arts. Children and their parents could choose schools not based on where they live but rather on their interests and needs.
In fact, this structure could lead to the elimination of costly magnet schools, because every high school would in essence become a magnet school.
Each of the six districts will be governed by an elected regional school board, which will employ one superintendent whose office also might contain a legal office and hearings office, maintain government relations and oversee student activities and athletics.
Each cluster will need an assistant superintendent who reports to the district superintendent and is responsible for the schools within the cluster, including hiring and firing principals. Administrative functions—curriculum, transportation, finance, human resources, special education and food service—would operate district-wide outside the superintendent’s office and separate from the clusters, with each department supervised by an assistant superintendent.
To fund our new districts, we’ll need to remove budget responsibilities from municipalities and transfer them to the regional governing boards, each of which would then apportion the money among the schools within the district, giving boards the flexibility to concentrate resources where the needs are. Granted, that would require a tectonic shift in the state’s long-held reverence for local control. “You’re dealing with a lot of culture and tradition,” says Cirasuolo.
While this funding proposal does not obviate our state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund education, it will result in fewer disparities among districts by smoothing out the huge gaps in per-pupil spending that result from inequities in property values among municipalities. Statewide, annual per-pupil spending averages about $14,000. However, 111 districts spend less than that, with Ansonia, Hebron, Watertown and Wolcott below $11,000 per pupil. At the other end of the scale, Sharon and Canaan spend over $22,000.
Viewed another way, total public-school spending as a percentage of a municipality’s grand list ranges from 0.36 percent in wealthy Greenwich to 4.78 percent in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation.
Creating larger school districts through consolidation also addresses one of the most daunting problems the governor and legislature tried to address through the reform bill last spring: the achievement gap, most vividly seen in standardized test-score disparities between urban and suburban schools. Under “No Child Left Behind,” children in failing schools are allowed to transfer to another school, but only if it’s in the same district. Expand the boundaries of the districts, and the choices and educational opportunities become much greater.
Nearly as important as providing increased opportunities are the cost savings that could be realized through statewide consolidation—putting more money into the classroom, where it is needed most. The regional service centers as currently configured have been working on the margins helping some districts take baby steps to band together to save money.
Paula Colen, executive director of EASTCONN, the regional center serving 36 northeast Connecticut districts, says five districts and their corresponding municipalities recently formed a collaborative that they expect will bring significant health-care savings.
“When we do things regionally, we can not only create savings, in many cases we can also increase quality and reduce duplication of effort,” Colen says. “So instead of paying fees to our health-care provider, that funding—all of it or some part of it—can be driven back into student education and learning.”
Take school-year calendars, for instance. Because every district is responsible for getting its children to local schools as well as magnet schools, vo-tech schools, charter schools and academies, when district schools are closed on days that others are open, the district still has to spend thousands to keep the buses running. A few districts are finding that sharing holidays and vacations can have a ripple effect on budgets. Expand that to larger, regional districts and the potential is there for saving millions.
“There are lots of opportunities for school districts to cooperate on programs, but the calendars get in the way,” says Virginia Seccombe, executive director at LEARN, the 24-district regional center along the eastern shoreline. “At one meeting a superintendent said, ‘You know, the differences in calendars cost me the equivalent of a teacher’s salary.’”
In addition, with only six districts, better deals can be struck with transportation companies, with the potential of mitigating additional costs incurred by transporting pupils among high school clusters. Clustering schools presents an opportunity to design more efficient routes, such as a configuration that emerged from a study in the LEARN regional center. There, three special-education directors realized they all were sending children to the same program in Hartford—aboard three separate vans. They pooled resources to send just one van, and from that emerged an approach similar to an airline’s hub-and-spoke strategy.
Consolidating districts also saves money in curriculum development, especially now that the state is initiating a common core curriculum this year. Currently, most districts have curriculum specialists that design the year’s instruction.
“We’ve gotten 18 school districts together to write curriculum for the state’s new common core,” says Craig W. Edmondson, executive director of ACES, the regional center comprising 25 districts from New Haven to Waterbury, Meriden and Middletown. “We have over 100 educators working collaboratively to write curriculum, so it is shared intellectual property they’re going to take back to their home districts.”
While that level of cooperation is helpful, it remains a large and complex effort that consolidated districts would eliminate.
Edmondson points out that Connecticut’s school districts have reached a point where revenues are flat, at best, which might at last lead school boards to look more closely at additional opportunities for regionalization. “We’ve reached the tipping point,” he says. Districts can survive economic downturns for maybe one or two budget years, “but when you get into the second, third or fourth year, it takes a major toll on your ability to deliver quality programs.”
The state’s regional education centers are well positioned to take on added responsibilities—security, for one recently urgent example—but, as Edmondson observes, so far our school districts’ economic distress has not led to serious conversations about giving up what has been their historic role.
“The local authority in Connecticut, because of its long history, is a real value to many of our communities,” he says. “They appreciate the opportunity to oversee their schools, and they believe that they have the best interests of their schools and children in mind. So, even though it’s so economically advantageous to do it, I’m not sure that communities would be willing to give it up now.”
So while Cirasuolo applauds the governor’s efforts as a good start, he knows we still have far to go. He notes that even in the best school districts there are children who are not making it, and even the state’s best pupils are falling short of some international benchmarks. “If our objective is that every kid learns what they need to learn and be able to do, then we need to think outside the parameters of our individual school districts,” he says.
That means ridding ourselves of that outmoded 17th-century system to ensure the success of our 21st-century future.