Every community deserves a public school

As a graduate of a rural Windham County public school, I am dismayed by efforts to weaken or even close it – the sole school in the town.  Hampton Elementary’s enrollment has shrunk, as the population edged up to about 2,000. Fewer residents have children, reflecting a demographic dip statewide. Also, more families opt for private alternatives.

My wife and I now live in New Haven, where our children attend neighborhood public schools. We are grateful for this opportunity. We support state and local taxes to provide a strong public education to every student (not to mention federal efforts to improve, for example, pre-Kindergarten access and quality).

Two centuries ago, Connecticut’s Noah Webster argued “knowledge should be universally diffused by means of public schools.” (1790) In Massachusetts, Horace Mann believed that if “education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.” (1848)

Massachusetts – benefiting from 1993 reforms – has surpassed Connecticut in many measures of educational quality. While our state enacted changes in 2012, much work remains to pursue excellence and equity in schooling.

Since the early days of the republic, public schools have helped anchor communities. In recent decades, social atomization has accelerated through technology, ideology and cynicism about institutions, especially government. Trust has declined, with individualism often prevailing, as Robert Putnam has shown.

Enlightened self-interest can be eclipsed by a narrowly transactional approach: “What’s in it for me?” Not new, this narrow lens undermines public structures and social cohesion, including around education.

Connecticut assigns towns into District Reference Groups (DRGs), based on census data on average income, education, occupation and family structure. Hampton falls in the middle tier of “E,” with Ashford, Franklin and Willington. The “A” group includes Darien, Ridgefield and Westport. New Haven is on the rise in many ways, but it’s here with Bridgeport, Hartford and Windham in the “I” group.

The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding filed suit against the state in 2005, for alleged failure to adequately and equitably fund public schools. The State Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that the Connecticut Constitution guarantees all public school students an effective education and sent the case back to Hartford Superior Court, where the adequacy and equity claims are scheduled for trial in July 2014.

Inequality in the U.S. has reached peaks not seen since the 1920s. Connecticut has become a more extreme “state of disparity.”

My brother returned with his wife to Hampton and enrolled their son in Hampton Elementary. My nephew has the same first-grade teacher we had in the 1970s; a good education is still available there. Yet much has changed, including attitudes toward public schooling.

Some Hampton residents now doubt the need for a local school, as students may be driven to schools elsewhere. Skeptics have had a cumulative effect, discouraging student enrollment. The result may be self-fulfilling, if the school withers through neglect.

October 15, Hampton will hold a school budget referendum. My family will vote against the attempt to cut that budget by 5.5 percent, nominally, versus the prior year.  Already, the budget has been flat-funded for three straight years in nominal terms, and the town (in regional high-school district 11) is exploring additional regional cost-sharing efficiencies. Considering inflation over four years, the proposed budget is severe in real dollars. In a school of 100-odd students, with a principal who is also the special education teacher, a cut of $120,000 hurts. Let us hope a majority of Hampton voters will reject that cut – and that across Connecticut, proponents of public education will boost schools while scrutinizing their performance.

Whether we are rich or poor, urban, suburban or rural, childless or a matriarch/patriarch, education is a shared responsibility. It isn’t just a commercial product; consumer choice, alone, can erode community spirit. Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations,” but also “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”  The market’s “invisible hand” needs a complement – Smith might say “fellow-feeling” – to advance our state’s children, economic future and quality of life.

Horace Mann said, “A house without books is like a room without windows.” A town without a public school is isolated, insular, in decline.

A vital public school brings neighbors together, enduring for generations – elevating property values as well as community values.

 

 

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