This morning’s announcement by President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and outgoing Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman that the administration will fully fund and operate the revived D.C. Opportunity school choice program is wonderful news. Certainly Obama is moving to get rid of an obstacle to effort to win re-election against Republican presidential nominee presumptive Mitt Romney (who has made expanding vouchers a keystone of his school reform agenda) — and stave off the renewed controversy he has attracted since February, when he proposed earlier to effectively end funding for the program in his 2013-2014 budget plan — while Boehner is scoring points with movement conservatives who generally oppose the federal role in education except when it suits them. But none of that matters because some 1,615 of the district’s poorest children get to escape the nation’s capitol’s failure mills and dropout factories, while D.C.’s district gets the pressure they need to continue its steady overhaul.
Yet for all this and other good news that has come in the past two years about the expansion of voucher programs, charter schools, magnet schools, and digital learning efforts, we are also reminded each day that just a fifth of all families and their children can actually choose high-quality educational opportunities. Far too many families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, have no means of helping their kids escape from dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity that condemn their futures to the economic and social abyss. Middle class families have it no better, with zoned schooling policies within districts and other Zip Code Education policies restricting them from providing their kids with schools that may be better fits for their learning needs. As a result, these families are forced to either accept what American public education offers, bear the burden of paying for private school out of their own coffers even as they pay dearly for public schools that don’t serve their kids (if they have such means), or engage in what is codified as criminal behavior by sending their kids to schools outside of their districts.
The latest examples of the perversity of Zip Code Education policies can be see in Lieberman’s own home state of Connecticut, where it has been a front-page issue for the past year. As Dropout Nation readers know, the Nutmeg State is home to Tanya McDowell — a homeless mother from Bridgeport who was sentenced to five years imprisonment earlier this year after being charged by prosecutors in nearby Norwalk for what can laughingly be called theft of educational services — and Stratford grandmother Marie Menard (who is suing the district after she was arrested for helping her daughter and grandchildren “steal education” too). This year, districts have stepped up their efforts to crack down on families for doing all they can to keep their kids out of schools unfit for them.
In suburban Wethersfield, the district kicked out 33 kids out of its classrooms because their parents sent their kids to the district instead of letting their futures waste away in nearby Hartford, where only 62 percent of eighth-graders in its original Class of 2010 made it senior year of high school. From the perspective of Martin Walsh, one of Wethersfield’s school board members, it is better to toss out a few kids whose families than to do anything that doesn’t “preserve the schools for Wethersfield kids.”
In Westport, the school district there filed suit against Christopher Kieras and his ex-wife, Maria, for allegedly sending their daughter to one of its schools instead of putting her in the schools in Seymour, where they allegedly live. It will likely cost taxpayers in Westport far more — including payments for private investigators — to collect the $27,000 in tuition that the district says it lost. But keeping Westport’s doors closed to kids seeking what is perceived to be a higher-quality educational option than the zoned school is the more-important priority.
Then there is the effort by the Weston district to track those families who they believe are stealing education — and their efforts are even burdensome to the families who live in the district. This coming school year, families sending their middle schoolers to Weston’s schools will have to submit home deeds, copies of leases, and letters from landlords verifying their residency in order to keep 30 or so kids from outside district from learning about geometry and The Scarlett Pimpernel. Weston isn’t alone: The Greenwich district has also put in an elaborate system that includes tracking expiration of apartment leases in order to keep some 30 kids otherwise stuck with low–quality in their home district from attending its schools.
Don’t think that the districts are merely playing their part in restricting choice for those kids outside of their boundaries. Just six of the 18 schools Greenwich operates are open enrollment, allowing families from throughout the district to exercise a subminimal for of choice. None of the five elementary schools operated by Wethersfield’s district allows for any form of choice (outside of perhaps moving from one zone to another, and even that doesn’t guarantee options because districts change their zones at will). Even as the districts declare that they are looking out for the best interests of families and taxpayers who finance the schools, they do plenty to ensure that those parents also don’t have choice within the districts (or outside them).
What is happening in Connecticut is disgraceful. Families throughout the Nutmeg State, especially poor and minority households, have wider choices in restaurants than they do school options. This is especially shameful when one considers the low quality of teaching and curricula throughout the state. While the nation saw the percentage of functionally illiterate fourth-graders decline by six percentage points (from 39 percent to 33 percent) between 2003 and 2011, according to analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data, the percentage of Connecticut fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency increased from 26 percent to 27 percent. Meanwhile average reading scores for all students in the state have actually declined in the past eight years, even as the average scale score for all students nationwide has increased by nearly a third of a grade level. Connecticut’s districts the array of high-quality educational options for all families is what should be happening in
Now let’s be clear: The districts aren’t exactly the ones to blame. As in other states, the entire perversion that is Zip Code Education is one caused by the unwillingness of state legislators and political leaders to overhaul school funding systems that allow districts to both deny educational options to all students and also oppose any form of choice. Unlike most states, which, on average, provide for 48 percent of all school funding, Connecticut has largely allowed schools to be dependent on local tax dollars; property taxes account for 58 percent of all school funding in the Nutmeg State in 2009, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. But Connecticut’s own constitution and related rulings (including 1989’s Sheff v. O’Neill state court judgment) have made clear that education is a state concern with districts only acting as arms of state government for this purpose. By not overhauling its school funding regime, the state has abdicated its responsibility to provide all children with high-quality educational opportunities. It has also allowed for districts within the state to oppose choice for families outside and within their service areas under the guise of local control.
The state had opportunity to put an end to Zip Code Education policies this year. On one end, there was a proposal in the Nutmeg State legislature that would have downgraded stealing education from a felony (and as much as 20 years in prison) to a misdemeanor. It shouldn’t be a crime at all, but at least it would have been a start. Unfortunately, that legislation never made it beyond a hearing. There was also Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform plan, which would have allowed for the further expansion of charters by increasing funding for charter schools and allowing more operators to come into the state. Malloy did manage to win a 22 percent increase in state per-pupil dollars that will help allow for more charters to open in the state, along with some other changes. But neither Malloy nor state legislators bothered to launch an inter-district school choice program similar to that which Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder unsuccessfully attempted to expand last year, this could have expanded the number of high-quality school opportunities for poor and minority kids. More importantly, the state didn’t bother making the most-substantial reform of all: Taking over full funding of schools and districts, which would have allowed the state to voucherize those dollars and allow for choice throughout the Nutmeg State.
But Connecticut isn’t alone. As seen in districts in states such as Oklahoma, far too many families are paying a high price for practices in American public education that are geared more for keeping failing and mediocre districts in business than in helping families help their kids get the nurturing cultures of genius they need in order to do well in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy. Although we have seen more than 15 states expand or enact voucher programs within the last two years, and others allow for the expansion of charters, this isn’t enough. It will take states fully taking over funding of schools to allow for choice to be a reality for every child and family in America. It will also involve allowing families to take control of failing and mediocre schools within their own neighborhoods through Parent Trigger laws (which have now been backed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors), and allowing the use of school funding to launch DIY education efforts to make choice even more robust. And providing more-comprehensive data on school and teacher performance — a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast and something that some reform-minded governors such as Andrew Cuomo in New York are pushing — will allow families to have the information they need to make the best decisions for the children they love.
What happens each day in Connecticut and in the rest of the nation should no longer be tolerated. No parent should face arrest or litigation just for doing their most-important job: Providing their children (and ours) with the best chances for brighter futures.