Troubled schools on trial: When poverty permeates the classroom
Struggling to cope with past sexual abuse and a mother who works long hours at a low-wage job, Alex regularly breaks down while at school.
The screaming, crawling and crying of this 5-year-old at North Windham Elementary School – and the arrival of an ambulance when he sometimes begins to hurt himself – are disruptions that make it hard to keep other students focused.
“It’s a continued struggle to survive emotionally,” said Catina Cabán-Owen, the only social worker at her school of 466 students. “This child does not have the support, because the mother cannot provide it.”
Alex, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, is watched by a neighbor while his mother works. His father is not around.
While Alex’s struggle is extreme, his basic story – a student living in poverty who needs help coping with trauma – is common. He is among many students for whom poverty creates or exacerbates obstacles to learning.
There are more than 206,000 students in the state’s public schools who are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Their needs vary – many of them non-instructional.
From students sleeping in homeless shelters to children who are not fed when they leave school, “I see it every day,” Cabán-Owen said.
Whether the state is doing enough to educate children in poverty was at the core of a recent five-month trial in Hartford Superior Court. Plaintiffs in the case – a coalition of parents, teachers’ unions and municipal leaders – were suing the state, contending it had failed in its duty under the state constitution to adequately fund public education.
The trial ended with a judge’s ruling that the state’s overall spending on education meets constitutional requirements, but the way it distributes that money, and some lax state standards for educational performance, do not.
All aspects of the decision are now being appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which will have to wrestle with – and finally decide – the questions that confronted the trial court.
Coping with poverty
Testimony and arguments in the case provided a unique, in-depth look at the conditions, policies and resources that shape education in the state’s struggling school districts.
Teachers, principals, superintendents and others connected to some of the state’s lowest-achieving schools took turns testifying during the trial about the trauma and poverty their students face – and the shortage of resources they say they have with which to help.
Poverty “seeps into their whole school day. And we have to deal with that every day when they come in,” testified Ana Rocco, the principal of Ellsworth Avenue School in Danbury.
Throughout the trial, presiding Judge Thomas Moukawsher asked witnesses some iteration of the questions, “Is this a problem that is principally driven by poverty?” and, “Who is responsible for this mess, and what can be done about it?”
On Sept. 7, he answered his own questions in his 90-page decision, which has sent shock waves through the state.
The state, not local government, is constitutionally responsible for elementary and secondary education, the judge ruled. And the way the state sets some education policies is “so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational” and therefore unconstitutional.
“Too little money is chasing too many needs,” Moukawsher wrote, outlining huge disparities in achievement and spending between rich and poor towns. “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” that factors in “the special circumstances of the state’s poorest communities.”
The state spends about $4.8 billion each year supplementing local school budgets, contributing to school construction costs, and providing pension and health benefits for retired teachers.
The judge’s evidence that things have nonetheless gone wrong: The majority of students from low-income families test far below where they should on reading and math exams. In Bridgeport and Hartford, two of the largest school districts in the state, only a quarter of the students are reading at grade level and half are significantly behind.
Connecticut for years has had among the nation’s largest gaps in achievement between poor students and their better-off peers.
Compared to poor students in other states, Connecticut’s are in the middle of the pack in reading on the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Education. In math, Connecticut students from low-income families are almost last.
Poverty is concentrated
“Schools serving the poorest in Connecticut are concentrated in just 30 of its 169 municipalities,” Judge Moukawsher wrote. “The state of education in some towns is alarming…In the schools at the center of this case in particular, everyone agrees that crushing socio-economic circumstances handicap many of the students.”
The judge’s decision comes at a time when the number of children from low-income families in Connecticut public schools has been steadily increasing.
Ten years ago, 156,906 students came from families that qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. Last school year, there were 206,075 such students.
To qualify for free or reduced-price lunches a child’s family must earn less than 185 percent of what the federal government has determined is the poverty threshold. For a single mom, that’s less than $30,000 for reduced-price meals or about $21,000 for free meals. Median household income in Connecticut is $71,346.
The additional 50,000 poor students over the past decade overwhelmingly showed up in schools that already had high concentrations of poverty.
Last school year, 91,000 students – one out of every six public school students in the state – attended a school where more than 70 percent of the students came from low-income families. About 125,000 students – one in four – attended schools where 60 percent of the students are poor.
“The concentration of need that is happening in East Hartford is literally unparalleled one zip code away,” said East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel. “Our story is a story of poverty. This is a story of families under significant duress.”
In New Britain, 500 students are homeless or are “couch surfing” at the homes of family members and friends because their guardians don’t have a home. That’s one out of every 35 students.
In Bridgeport, the state’s largest school district, “There are countless students with a father in jail, drug issues in their homes. They need someone to talk to about that. I do have guidance counselors; I just don’t have enough,” testified Interim Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz.
In his decision, the judge found that, “Schools in low-income, high-poverty districts – despite demonstrably greater needs – have significantly fewer guidance counselors per student.” He also found impoverished districts employ fewer special education teachers, psychologists and social workers.
At New London High School, one-third of students have had some sort of involvement with the state’s child welfare agency, which investigates abuse and neglect. Decades of research has linked exposure to abuse, neglect and other forms of severe adversity in early childhood to a wide range of mental and physical diseases and disorders.
“We know education and poverty are linked,” explained William Tompson, the New London principal, noting that his school does not employ a social worker. “They are tending to basic needs first: food, shelter…”
The state’s Equity Plan, released by the State Department of Education last year, outlined some other obstacles poor children face.
“Educator retention in high-poverty schools was less than half of that in low-poverty schools. The nearly 125,000 students attending these schools are much more likely to see staff and program changes on a frequent basis than their peers attending low-poverty schools,” the report concludes.
Often coupled with high poverty rates are high numbers of students who speak limited English or need special education.
Three-quarters of the state’s 35,000 English language learners come from low-income families, and one-fifth also require special education for a disability. At Fair Haven School in New Haven, more than half the students speak limited English. Three schools in Danbury are half-filled with English learners.
Statewide, there are 28 schools where more than one-third of the students are English learners. Those schools, which enroll 14,000 children, are all in the state’s lowest-performing districts.
Diversity and performance
State test results show students from low-income families perform much better in districts that are not saturated with high-need students.
For example, in Monroe three-quarters of the students from low-income families were reading and writing at grade level during the 2014-15 school year. Two towns away in Bridgeport, one-quarter of the poor students were at grade level. While nearly every student attending Bridgeport’s schools qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, 8 percent of the students in Monroe do.
“Students really do learn a lot from interacting with their peers. So the more that you have concentrations of poverty, the more likely you are to have limited success,” testified Kenji Hakuta, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and an expert in English language development.
Throughout the trial the judge presented scenarios to several witnesses to find out what they believed would be the most effective ways to improve things. Most of the scenarios weighed diversifying schools against things like hiring more social workers, reducing class sizes or building new facilities.
The response from many witnesses for the plaintiffs echoed that of Sal Pascarella, Danbury’s superintendent: “Given the choice, I would take the diverse setting.”
The leaders of schools in Bridgeport and East Hartford also testified that having fewer students with so many needs would help ensure that students who need supports receive them.
“This speaks to me about an opportunity gap,” said Quesnel, East Hartford’s superintendent.
In New Haven and Hartford the concentration of student poverty has actually decreased in some schools.
That’s because the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1996 ordered the state to end racial segregation in Hartford schools, and the state has spent billions of dollars since then, primarily in the Hartford region, to create regional magnet schools to attract suburban, middle-class students to attend school with city students. The state, however, placed a moratorium six years ago on building more magnet schools unless ordered to by the courts. Students in these regional magnet schools outperform their peers in neighborhood schools, a study released by the state last year concluded.
An opportunity gap?
It’s unclear precisely how big the disparities in school spending are between affluent and impoverished communities. That’s because the State Department of Education’s lone calculation for per-pupil spending continues factoring in students who leave a district to attend magnet schools run by another district.
For example, that data shows Bridgeport Public Schools spent $13,705 per student during the 2014-15 school year compared to $19,748 in Westport. But 460 of the students that are counted in Bridgeport’s calculation actually attend magnets in nearby communities, not city-run schools. That makes the city’s per-student spending $308 higher, but still much less than that in many of its neighboring communities.
The federal government earlier this year highlighted Connecticut as having one of the largest spending disparities in the country between districts with large numbers of poor, minority students and their neighbors.
Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University expert in school finance, testified that his research shows Connecticut’s school funding approach is not leveling the playing field for several impoverished districts.
“Connecticut had a higher proportion of children attending financially disadvantaged districts than most other states,” said Baker. His analysis found that 13.6 percent of public school students in Connecticut attend schools that have significant student need and much less funding than nearby districts – the fifth highest rate among U.S. states.
School ‘not a panacea’ for poverty
The school-funding trial was originally ordered by the state Supreme Court, which had determined that the state is responsible for providing students with a minimally suitable education. The trial judge was told to define that standard and determine whether the state was meeting it. But the justices in the plurality opinion also pointed out that the state constitution has its limits.
“The education clause is not a panacea for all of the social ills that contribute to many of the achievement deficiencies,” three of the justices concluded.
Attorneys defending the state in the recent trial emphasized that point. The state is responsible for offering every student a minimally suitable education, they said, not freedom from the ill effects of poverty.
“Fixing those problems are admirable and desirable goals,” Joseph Rubin, associate attorney general, said during his opening arguments in the case. “Our schools cannot eliminate poverty. They cannot eliminate poor housing, and therefore they cannot be held accountable toward eliminating all the effects of poverty and other factors beyond their control.”
“Now our schools can, and they should, and they will help to level the playing field, but they cannot eliminate all of the effects of poverty,” Rubin said.
The plaintiffs, Rubin said, “all share a common goal. They all want more money. They’ll always want more. That’s their job.”
‘The same opportunity to succeed’
Attorneys for the coalition of parents, teachers, school boards and mayors suing the state agreed schools are not responsible for curing poverty, but they said lawmakers are on the hook for ensuring students from low-income families are provided with an opportunity to succeed in school – which inherently costs more given their needs.
“They deserve the same opportunity to succeed” Joseph Moodhe, the lead attorney for the coalition suing the state, said during closing arguments in August.
The state’s current funding formula factors in an additional 30 percent in aid for each student a district enrolls who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, but those suing the state argue it costs at least twice as much to provide the services these students need to receive a suitable education.
“I think there is this myth and this misunderstanding that what’s needed is just to spend the same amount of money in every place. If you think that, you are ignoring the realities of our urban centers. The challenges that come with generations of poverty. Poverty has to be part of this conversation,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told a crowd during a rally held outside the state Capitol after the judge’s ruling.
Overall, more than $11 billion is spent in Connecticut each year to operate, renovate or build elementary, middle and high schools and to provide retirement benefits to teachers and other educators. State funding in 2015 accounted for 44 percent of the spending, federal funding just under 5 percent and private funding less than 1 percent.
Local municipalities fund the other half of the tab through local property taxes, but the proportion each municipality pays varies depending on the amount of aid it receives. For example, 21 percent of Bridgeport and Hartford’s school budget was funded by local property taxes last school year. Those cities are among the poorest in the state, and student test scores are among the worst. In Greenwich, one of the state’s most affluent and highest-performing districts, property taxes cover nearly 85 percent of the town’s school budget.
Plight of the cities
Connecticut schools rely more heavily on local property taxes than do those in every other state except Illinois and New Hampshire, the U.S. Department of Education reports.
That makes funding schools particularly difficult in many of the state’s large cities, which face declining tax bases and escalating education costs, particularly for staffing and special education services.
In Bridgeport, for example, where abandoned factories checker the city, taxable property has shrunk year after year. Compounding the problem, the state legislature, facing a sluggish economy and a budget deficit, cut education aid statewide this year by $84 million – a $2.5 million cut for Bridgeport.
Heading into this school year, Bridgeport needed to find $15.1 million just to cover contractually promised pay raises, special education and other existing programs.
Help never came and cuts were made. Guidance counselors now work one day a week at elementary schools and four days at middle schools (a $425,000 savings), several positions were not filled so high school class sizes increased to 29 students and several electives were eliminated (saving $900,000), teaching aides and tutors for kindergarten classrooms were eliminated (to save $2.1 million) as were school resource officers (saving $400,000). The district also may stop busing elementary students who live within 1.5 miles of school (saving $1.3 million).
In New Britain – where taxable property has decreased by more than $500 million since 2010 – elementary schools shed dozens of teaching and tutoring positions, resulting in larger class sizes and many fewer teacher aides.
In East Hartford – where the tax base has declined by almost 13 percent since 2010 – the high school no longer offers French, field trips have been eliminated, and there is no money for a librarian or new library books.
“Not purchasing librabry books is a very poor stragtegy for a district which has an extremely large literacy gap,” testified Superintendent Quesnel, who took the step reluctantly. “If you can get a kid to pick up a book that they are interested in, you are going to change a student’s life…”
Statewide, school spending has grown faster than inflation.
Between fiscal 2006 and 2016, spending increased by $2.1 billion – a 32 percent increase. Had spending matched inflation, as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, costs would have increased by about $1.3 billion.
In the state’s 10 highest-performing districts, however, spending increased by 44 percent while it increased by 29 percent in the worst districts.
“It’s the story of two Connecticut’s,” testified Jim Finley, a principal consultant for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Help beyond the classroom
Attorneys for the state also argued that they spend millions each year to fund non-instructional programs to ameliorate the effects of poverty – from helping districts feed students breakfast, lunch and dinner; to hosting classes to help parents learn English; to opening dental clinics at school; to providing supports for students who are pregnant.
Judge Moukawsher gave the state credit for providing many of these non-instructional services.
“The very existence of these programs means the state far exceeds the bare minimum spending levels the judiciary is willing to order,” he wrote. “The evidence certainly shows that thousands of Connecticut students would benefit from enhancing some of these programs, but once the state spends enough to meet the bare constitutional minimum only the legislature can decide whether to spend more on them.”
Most of the money goes to the most impoverished districts, testified John Frassinelli, who oversees health, family and adult education services for the State Department of Education. (Click here and here for a complete list of non-instructional programs in schools.) State officials also pointed to state-funded programs outside of schools that help families pay for food and medical care.
But educators testified at length that the students’ needs far exceed what the state is providing, or that children are not getting connected to the supports outside of school. State and federal government reimburse impoverished districts one cent for each breakfast served, for example, and local revenue must pick up the rest of the cost.
Ruth Stewart-Curley keeps food and clothes that she paid for in her desk.
“They say, ‘Miss. Miss. I am hungry. What do you have,” the teacher for English-language learners at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London testified. “They come under-clothed. My room is cold. My windows are broken. So I give them clothes.”
“We call it triage. You know, you start your day by handling the most severe cases of what’s going on. Who’s in crisis? Who’s having some issues? And getting them settled through their day and then going from there,” testified Elaine Cabral, the principal of Lincoln School in New Britain, where funding is not available for a full-time mental health professional. “We can’t possibly meet the needs of that many students.”
This story is part of a seven-part series. Troubled Schools on Trial:
Sign up for CT Mirror's free daily news summary.
Free to Read. Not Free to Produce.
The Connecticut Mirror is a nonprofit newsroom. 90% of our revenue comes from people like you. If you value our reporting please consider making a donation. You'll enjoy reading CT Mirror even more knowing you helped make it happen.YES, I'LL DONATE TODAY