In Connecticut, a Wealth Gap Divides Neighboring Schools


In the 2014-15 school year, Bridgeport spent about $14,000 per student while Fairfield spent nearly $16,000. The difference between those numbers is not enough to explain the yawning disparities in results.

Finding and keeping qualified teachers, especially those certified for math and science, is a battle for administrators like Dane Brown, in his seventh month as interim principal at Warren Harding.CreditChristopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Egregious Gaps

Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Missouri, testified convincingly that there is no direct correlation between merely adding more money to failing districts and getting better results. This is hard to argue with, and the plaintiffs concede that only well-spent extra money could help. But if the egregious gaps between rich and poor school districts in this state don’t require more overall state spending, they at least cry out for coherently calibrated state spending.

Because schools are heavily supported by local property taxes, as the judge pointed out, a property-poor town like Bridgeport has less money for its schools, even while taxing its residents at higher rates. And when funds fall short — for things as basic as paper, as they sometimes do — there is no way to make it up.

That is not true in Fairfield, Mr. Dwyer, the chairman of the board of education, said. While his is not the highest-spending district in the state — several districts spend more than $25,000 per student — Fairfield parent associations raise money for field trips, white boards or boxes of school supplies.

And then there is what residents spend out of school. “A suburban family can get their kids to museums, they can travel, can get special tutors, they can get enrichment classes,” Mr. Dwyer said. “Poverty is a word, but what really separates the two districts is suburban children have more enrichment activities before they even start public school than the typical urban child, and that makes a difference.”

Teacher shortages

Shortage problems with only minimal shortage solutions hold true in many districts for math teachers, bilingual instructors, special education teachers, and, in general in poor districts where the working conditions make the jobs less attractive. The state sees itself as powerless here. It set up a system of local control in which school districts must agree on these things with teachers.But if the system was set up by the state then the state is responsible for the system. Any obstacle to a rational system the state has set up, the state can take down. The state is not powerless.

Harding High School, a once-grand red brick building now long past its heyday, sits on Central Avenue in Bridgeport. Ground has been broken on a new $106 million school nearby, on a site of a former General Electric plant.

But for now, the school’s 1,100 students make do with crumbling walls, peeling paint and classrooms that on Friday were sweltering. By late morning, teachers and students mopped sweat from their faces as they marched through the building.

Finding and keeping qualified teachers, especially those certified to teach math and science, is a

Presented with the challenges of Bridgeport, many teachers look for jobs in neighboring Fairfield, Greenwich or Stratford, Dr. Johnson, the assistant superintendent, said. That creates a competitive disadvantage that is nearly impossible to overcome.

“They can go 10 minutes away,” she said, “and make $25,000 to $30,000 more.”

Indeed, the districts’ proximity not only magnifies their differences, it makes matters worse, education experts say.

Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Penn State who studies school segregation, said: “Over time, districts that are right next to each other become very much identified as on very different trajectories, and that has a range of impacts on the kinds of schooling kids get. There is an idea of what certain districts are, and they just diverge.”

Correction: September 14, 2016
An article on Monday about disparities in Connecticut schools omitted part of the name of a university in Atlanta that an honors student is considering attending. It is Clark Atlanta University, not Clark University.

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