Education is everything. It is the way of out poverty and the path to freedom. My father repeated this message every day. He was right. It did pull us out of poverty and, it took us up the economic ladder. Like millions of other immigrants, a publicly funded education and hard work allowed us to attain the American Dream.
I could not have ever imagined from my seat at the back of an elementary classroom, not comprehending a word of English, that I would one day serve as a board of education chairman, State Board of Education member and a leader on Connecticut House and Senate Education committees. What I learned is that education policy is a very serious matter that should be guided by teachers and parents. They know students best and are passionate about the education they receive.
Last year at this time state senate leaders tried to pass a bill that would force school systems under a certain number to merge. They used cost and not educational quality to justify their drive to push this initiative through the legislature. Parents quickly realized that using cost savings was just a smoke screen for an education take over and the first move to create county governments.
A 2018 report by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving (K-12 Regionalization Report in Connecticut) challenges the premise that quality education would be preserved, or costs contained through consolidation. “Contemporary consolidation suggests that new consolidation is likely to result in neither greater efficiency nor better instructional outcome.” Instead, they report that deconsolidation of large districts may actually save costs. “In some cases, reductions in K-12 costs might be obtained by deconsolidation – breaking up large districts.”
Education is delivered best locally and as close to students and their communities as possible. My experience with county government in another state showed that school systems can become highly politicized. Resources were often directed to areas that had the most political influence rather than where the resources were most needed. The focus was on political posturing and attention taken away from those most affected by their decisions.
Headlines are now consumed by protests on tolls, grocery/prepared meals tax, job losses, budget deficits, home values tanking, legalizing recreational pot, expanding affordable housing mandates and the mess in Washington, D.C. Our elected representatives must not revisit their deep-seated desire to merge local school districts. With many of our schools in the top 100 nationally, education is the one thing that still gives Connecticut an advantage. Just as enacting a state income tax stopped the influx of jobs and corporations here. Removing local control could be the undoing of the one thing that still works in our state. But knowing the system as I do, the impulse to mettle is endemic.
All children have the potential to learn and achieve. And, no matter the background or circumstances, all parents want a good education for their children, whether they are a hedge fund CEO in Westport or an incarcerated single mother in Niantic. But you cannot fix our intercity schools by dismantling local schools that work. Raising up under-performing schools should be the goal. Policy makers must focus on them and leave high-performing schools alone.
Instead of tampering with what works, efforts should be directed at giving schools more flexibility, not less. School districts could better contain costs and achieve greater efficiencies if legislators provide for more flexible cooperative agreements, and reductions in red tape and unfunded mandates.
Parents rose up in anger and protested last year when legislators thought they knew what would be better for their children. It was not the first-time regionalization has been proposed. My fear is that it will not be the last. If there are more attempts to regionalize our schools using the guise of budget efficiencies, enraged parents will rise again. And, I will be among them helping to leading the charge. It could make the toll protests look minuscule by comparison.
Elected policy decision makers who lack relevant experience are often place in important decision-making positions. Next time someone in Hartford get a big idea on how schools should be run, they should ask the experts, those closest to children — educators and parents.
Toni Boucher is Connecticut businesswoman, former teacher, Board of Education Chair, State Board of Education member, and former ranking Member of the Education Committee of the CT House of Representatives and Senate