When I was in first grade, I was mistakenly given an eighth-grade portion of food that I could not possibly finish. As I was presenting my uneaten portion to the woman at the garbage disposal, a redoubtable nun towering over me said, “Joseph, the pagan babies in Africa are starving and you’re wasting that good food.”
I responded, “Sister, if I eat the food, the pagan babies still won’t get it.”
Wap! The nun backhanded me across my face and the tray went flying.
Many people who attended Catholic schools in the 1960s can recount similar stories. But on the balance, these schools did an excellent job. At my grade school, even the slowest child in the class could read, write and do basic math by the eighth grade. We learned right from wrong and learned to love our country. To this day, I can still recite most of the Gettysburg address.
Connecticut is trying to redress historical racial inequalities and there would be no faster way than to allow minorities to escape inferior inner-city schools through a voucher program that enabled them to attend private secular schools or religious schools. Education is the key to entering the middle class.
Connecticut had a statute in the 1960s that allowed for the state to fund sectarian education, but it was declared unconstitutional in 1970 in decision Johnson v. Sanders. There is a public school choice program that involves magnet schools, charter schools and technical schools. There is even a lottery that allows inner-city students to attend better suburban public schools, but it is quite limited.
Connecticut is in 13th place in the United States for the most segregation of its Black students. And it is getting worse. For example, Bridgeport public schools were 51% minority in 1968; but as of 2016, were 86% minority. In neighboring Fairfield’s Warde High School, 83% of graduates go on to college and 93% continue after their freshman year whereas in Bridgeport’s Harding High School, only 36% attend college with a mere 68% continuing after freshman year.
A law suit in 1989, Sheff versus O’Neil attempted to address this disparity and Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled this segregation was unconstitutional. But after 30 years of litigation, little has changed. In fact, the courts ruled that the existence of magnet schools had solved the problem.
There is a movement to change Connecticut’s zoning laws to allow more affordable housing in suburban areas, but anyone who has the time to watch a Zoom meeting of Fairfield County political leaders will quickly realize that this is going nowhere. White suburbanites will give it lip service, but that’s it. Even attempting to buy a single house and adapt to allow multiple minority families has caused an open rebellion in the suburban town of Woodbridge. And Woodbridge is not a bastion of deplorables wearing MAGA hats. Biden won the town 67% to 32%.
Others want more regionalization that allows Blacks to attend suburban schools. But when Gov. Ned Lamont proposed such legislation, state representatives were inundated with constituents opposed to the idea. One constituent in Wilton started a Facebook page entitled “Hands Off Our School.” And Wilton voted for Biden over Trump, 65% to 33%.
Sequestering Blacks in inferior school districts is a major reason for wealth disparity as housing values are determined by the perception of the school system’s academic value. As of 2016 according to the Brookings Institute, the disparity between white family’s and Black family’s net worth was $170,000 to $17,000! And a major contributing factor was that whites build equity in their homes faster than Blacks.
In fact, a home owner in Greenwich with a house worth $1,400,000 pays the same amount of property taxes as a home owner in Bridgeport whose house is valued a $300,000! $11,300 a year! How can a Black homeowner in Bridgeport build wealth? Furthermore, recent legislation making police officers liable for their behavior may be causing increased crime. Hartford has recently seen a 37% increase in gun violence. This decimates home values too.
In the 1990s, when my daughters attended a Catholic school in Fairfield, their classmates were Haitian, Indian, Asian, Guatemalan and Puerto Rican. But when the school closed for financial reasons and my daughters switched to the public school, their classmates were overwhelming white.
This must change. The whites who live in the wealthy suburbs will not allow a massive influx of Blacks into their towns or into their school systems without years of political infighting and protracted litigation. But if vouchers were allowed, Blacks would be immediately empowered to send their children to private schools and their property values would not be determined by the public school system. Furthermore, Black churches would start their own schools. And they will probably be more tolerant of obnoxious kids like I was.
Vouchers are unlikely though. They are adamantly opposed by the teachers unions and the secular left, two powerful political forces in the Democratic Party. But maybe some of the Black representatives, who represent our cities, will have the courage to propose them.
Joseph Bentivegna MD is an ophthalmologist in Rocky Hill.