House Bill 7226 stands to improve classroom equitability and outcomes

As is the case for much of the nation, Connecticut’s urban public schools face unique challenges relative to their suburban counterparts, not among the least of which are underfunding, overcrowding, and poor attendance. Since moving to New Haven for school this past August, I have spent a good deal of time learning about these challenges.

My experience as a frequent instructional volunteer at local New Haven high schools has served to corroborate many unfortunate expectations, and also to illuminate larger symptoms of institutional inattention. In a district where 86 percent of enrolled students are non-white and 70 percent of families identify as asset-limited and income-constrained, 91.7 percent of teaching staff is white, earning at, near, and often above the city’s median household income.

The instructor-student disparity is exacerbated by the fact that 77 percent of New Haven teachers live outside of the city. The suburban experience insulates them from New Haven’s poverty, economic stratification, and racial disparities that remain elemental to the student experience. These teachers are asked to build community with students who live a very different reality from their own.

This February, HB 7226: An Act Establishing a Pilot Program to Provide Incentives for Teachers to Live in Certain Municipalities, was introduced before the Connecticut General Assembly. Co-sponsored by Sen. Saud Anwar and Reps. Elliott, Verrengia, Stallworth, Currey, Young, and Gibson, HB 7226 represents an innovative attempt to move teachers into their districts, particularly those that teach in the state’s poorest. In its current language, the bill apportions both state and local revenues to identify and incentivize housing alternatives within district boundaries. Attracting teachers to the municipalities in which they are employed aligns experiences and expectations, allowing for more informed and equitable student learning.

Installing teachers in their districts, before an impetus for improving the classroom environment, is a matter of dollars and cents, a reality that motivates much of HB 7226’s legislative diction. In the state of Connecticut, a relative anomaly nationwide, schools are largely funded by property taxes levied in the district (accounting for 54.6 percent of funding), which in turn creates discrepancies in instructor compensation.

Only New Hampshire schools rely more heavily on local property taxes, per a U.S. Department of Education report. Teacher salaries are a direct calculus of the percent and value of a district’s taxable land, which leads to drastically different funds for school districts. In New Haven, only 50.6 percent of land is taxable and median income sits at $40,457. In nearby Woodbridge, 91 percent of land is taxable and median income is $138,386. As a consequence of the funding formula, teachers in Woodbridge make more money than those in New Haven, the schools they serve are better funded, and positions are competitive. In the status quo, the best teachers have every incentive to work in more affluent districts.

HB 7226 couples local jurisdiction and state funding in mapping a solution. Under its authority, the Connecticut State Office of Policy and Management, in consultation with the Department of Housing and Department of Education, will accept municipal applications, authored collaboratively with regional boards of education, to participation in the teacher housing pilot program. HB 7226 suggestively predicts that many proposals may involve partnering with developers to renovate abandoned structures within the municipality, particularly properties already under the dominion of the district, with the intention of providing accessible and affordable housing alternatives for teachers. HB 7226 endorses, also, using existing tax credits to expand a teacher’s housing horizon and lessen the burden a major construction project exacts on a district’s budget.

Arguably more heartening is the flexibility HB 7226’s vocabulary affords districts mounting a proposal. Section 1(b)(4) makes concession for “another plan that the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management determines to be financially feasible.” Districts are, therefore, afforded the autonomy to sketch their own pilot program, to the tune of “principal amounts not exceeding in the aggregate one million dollars,” funding made available by the issuance of state bonds. Successful retention initiatives across the country can help to model this flexibility.

One avenue offers higher compensation for the schools and subjects that are hardest to staff in Connecticut. This model of differentiated pay enjoys wide support (by a two-thirds margin nationwide) and much success. Notable examples of districts with higher pay for teaching in high-needs schools include Columbus City Schools (OH), the Hawaii Department of Education, and Pinellas County Schools (FL). Albuquerque Public Schools (NM), Brownsville Independent School District (TX), and Buffalo School District (NY) pay more for teaching high-needs subjects. Dallas Independent School District, District of Columbia Public Schools, and Newark Public Schools are among the districts that do both. A less redistributional endeavor might grant teachers in unpopular districts strategic tax exemptions that could potentially offset the costs associated with living in the local municipality. New Haven attempted a similar initiative in 2010, though the plan, which included a “community tax” penalizing teachers who chose to live outside of the city, was ultimately opposed by the teachers union.

Evidence shows that a pilot program might also find success in hiring teachers earlier so as to attract a greater pool of applicants, promoting teacher retention efforts, developing data capabilities at the district level to compare hiring practices (among others), and easing teacher transfers from other states, particularly where a teacher might live adjacent to a state boundary.

Of course, these suggestions only begin the conversation. Connecticut has a responsibility to do well by its students -–a responsibility it can better meet if it ensures students are taught from a local perspective. New Haven public schools are prime candidates for the pilot program to be established with the passage of HB 7226, though youth in underfunded districts across the state stand to gain a great deal should HB 7226 become law.

I am enthusiastic that Connecticut might lead the charge in public education reform, beginning by investing in its foundation. Call your representatives, find your school board member, and evaluate your district using data available from Connecticut’s Next Generation Accountability System if you are, too.

Kyle Mayer belongs to the Yale College Democrats.

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