OP-ED | There’s Something To Be Said For Local School Districts
Toni Gold, a transportation and community development consultant, struck a nerve with her op-ed last month in the Hartford Courant, “Old Yankee Boundaries Strangling CT Cities.”
In it, she used Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s recent ruling on the inequity of Connecticut school funding to highlight what she called “the elephant in the room.”
“The real problem is the 400-year-old system of towns based on the parish boundaries of the Puritans, who required that everyone be able to walk to church,” wrote Gold. “That’s why Connecticut towns are approximately the same size geographically.”
She added, “What we’re unwilling to face is that our venerable, beloved and ancient history has been killing us — starting with our cities — while still protecting (for now) the most affluent and least needy.”
As one solution, CTNewsJunkie columnist Susan Bigelow proposed that the state “abolish local school districts and assume control of public education directly.”
“Let’s make it easier for the state to better regulate the hiring and firing of teachers,” Bigelow wrote. “And let’s allow those students caught in pockets of poverty and violence a way out through a better, more robust system that finally allows them to cross those arbitrary town lines with ease.”
While intriguing, I fear the elimination of local school boards would cause more problems than it solves.
For one, local boards dominate the states with the best school districts. Among the top 10 states in Education Week’s Quality Counts 2015 report, only one state – Wyoming – had county school districts; the rest were local.
The personal finance website WalletHub used “17 key metrics” to compile its own list of states with the best districts. The top 20 included just four states – Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and North Carolina – with county, rather than local, school boards.
Geography and population densities vary among different states, of course, but for those states considered leaders in public education, the majority govern their schools at the local level.
The local nature of public school boards is rooted in history. “In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring towns to establish and maintain schools,” according to the National School Boards Association. By 1826, Massachusetts schools were mandated to have separate committees for all public schools of each town, a model that “spread to the rest of the nation, insuring that local citizens would have a direct voice in the development and governance of their public schools.”
That model has obviously survived, but not just because “it’s always been done this way.” The responsibilities of school boards, simply, are most effectively fulfilled at the local level.
Among those responsibilities, according to the Center for Public Education, are “to have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community” and “to embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.”
Logistics alone would require a statewide school board to water down those hyper-targeted tasks – not exactly a path towards better schools.
Truth be told, a good number of Connecticut schools are already performing at a high level. The WalletHub rankings, for example, place Connecticut third in the country, while Education Week rated the state sixth-best. Improvement is still needed, but the facts don’t lie.
“Connecticut students remain on par or are outpacing many of their peers globally in areas of math, science and reading,” according to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the performance of 15-year-olds from 65 different education systems around the world. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Florida were the only three states to represent the U.S. on the 2012 test.
“Only four education systems worldwide did better than Connecticut students in reading,” added the Connecticut Department of Education. “In this particular area we are outpacing our peers globally.”
Ironically, Connecticut is better known for its largest-in-the-nation achievement gap in scores “between white students and students of color as well as between low-income and non-low-income students.”
Why, then, the disparity?
The predominant causes of poor student achievement are poverty and the educationally barren home environments that routinely accompany it. Seemingly endless studies underscore this elemental truth, including recent research from the University of Wisconsin.
“It is the delay of brain development that is accounting for the significant achievement test scores in children living in poverty,” researcher Seth Pollak said. “Now we know that that achievement gap in poverty is at least partially explained by slower brain growth attributed to poverty.”
The study explained that young brains “are in critical phases of development” and require a “home environment that prioritizes education.” That’s why “children who do not have this same experience early in life — especially those growing up in poverty — could experience delayed brain development that significantly harms their educational progress.”
How to solve this problem? A more equitable school-funding program as suggested by Judge Moukawsher would undoubtedly help. But one school board for the entire state? That would have only minimal impact on low-achieving schools, while thwarting the efforts of the higher-achieving ones – an absolute “baby-with-the-bath-water” scenario.
Clearly, closing the achievement gap should remain a high priority for Connecticut educators and politicians. Confronting poverty—not abolishing local school boards in favor of one statewide body—is the best place to start.
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