Liam Brennan is the father of two current and two future NHPS students.
(Opinion) March roars into New Haven bringing not only spring but a new superintendent. Carol Birks, the victor of the Board of Education’s controversial hiring-by-fire process, faces an uphill battle as she takes the reins of Elm City public schools this coming Monday. City and state officials have bequeathed to her a system afflicted with deep challenges and left parents wondering whether she is a remedy to — or just a product of — a negligent government.
My personal experience with the issues facing New Haven Public Schools came in the fall of 2015. My son’s teacher was on extended sick leave and NHPS was unable to find substitute teachers on a regular basis. Days passed in which the paraprofessional assigned to the class was left alone with the students. The administrators sporadically rotated the art teacher and other specialists into the classroom, but their freedom to pull educators from the other students was limited. The situation was only resolved when the original teacher finally quit around Thanksgiving, freeing the district to hire a full-time replacement.
NHPS’s failure to staff my son’s classroom opened my eyes to the legitimate reasons that cause some parents with economic means to decamp to the suburbs or splurge for private schools. While a racism-fueled white flight explains much of the disparity between school districts - including why schools in the Northeast are more segregated now than they were in 1968 - the economic consequences of that flight further compound the problem. Even anti-racists can fairly ask if they want to deal with a school system that cannot consistently put a teacher in a classroom.
But, when wealthier students withdraw from city schools it has detrimental effects on everyone else. A University of California, Riverside study found that students in mixed-income schools showed 30 percent more growth in test scores in high school than peers with similar socioeconomic backgrounds in schools with concentrated poverty. The National Bureau of Economic Research similarly concluded that low-income students attending more affluent schools scored roughly two years of learning ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools.
This dynamic exists everywhere, but Connecticut’s unique school-funding scheme exacerbates the problem. Schools in Connecticut are more reliant on local property taxes than those in any other state, apart from New Hampshire. That means a city like New Haven, where the median income is $40,457 and 49.4% of the land in the city is tax-exempt, pays its teachers less than a surrounding town like Woodbridge, where the median income is $138,386 and 91% of the land is taxable. The discrepancy is more acute when New Haven is compared with even wealthier locales like Greenwich. A Greenwich teacher with only a bachelor’s degree starts earning approximately $11,000 more per year than a New Haven teacher; one with a master’s degree earns $15,000 more than his or her Elm City counterpart.
State educational policy only aggravates the inequalities produced by the overreliance on local taxation. Connecticut’s primary route for assisting local governments with educational costs - the educational cost sharing grant - is farcical in its distribution. It routinely underfunds poorer municipalities while overfunding wealthy towns.
Unfortunately, New Haven has no discernable plan to address the capital’s gaps. NHPS spends a smaller percentage of its budget on salaries and benefits than other towns, but in 2015 allocated 13% of school funds - a whopping $56.5 million - to the offices of Operations and Special Education for undefined “services and supplies.”
Rather than being the “education watchdog” proponents claim it is, the Board of Education has turned into a circus. It gave busy parents only one-day notice before superintendent search meetings. It set objective standards to select potential superintendents but, when no local applicants met those standards, the Board - including Mayor Harp - backtracked. The result? Qualified candidates withdrew from consideration. Three finalists emerged from this process - one of which was a local candidate who did not meet the Board’s original criteria and a second was Birks, who immediately provoked a backlash amongst parents and teachers. Behavior hit a new low when threats of lawsuits and duels caused security guards to separate Board members.
These shenanigans obscure the best aspects of New Haven schools. The public schools educate students from every racial and economic background, every creed, and ability. No private school matches this commitment; no charter or suburban system rivals this breadth. On performance, researchers at Stanford recently had good news for the Elm City. They attempted to measure school effectiveness, examining how much students progress as they move through school. By their analysis, New Haven students advanced five years in learning through five years of schooling. While this news may appear to be a low bar, it put New Haven in the 60th percentile for effectiveness, beating out school districts like Madison, Branford, Fairfield and New Canaan.
But towns like Woodbridge, Guilford, and Greenwich do better even by these measures. Being in the 60th percentile for effectiveness leaves a lot of room for improvement. Moreover, too many New Haven students start from a position of disadvantage — struggling with poverty, homelessness, or learning English as a second language. If we want them to leave school as educated as students in other districts, five years of learning in five years of schooling are not enough. The truth is, we are asking our teachers to do more than those in other towns. This requires an ambitious plan. So far, the city and the state do not have one.
Carol Birks, here’s hoping you do. Welcome to New Haven.
Liam Brennan is the father of two current and two future NHPS students. You can reach him on Twitter at @LBNewHaven.