By William A. Collins
The only tool;
To get our kids,
To finish school.
With even right-wing Utah now railing against No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that meanspirited law can't claim many adherents anywhere anymore. Outside Washington, it's a joke. The president coveted such a scheme as his personal education legacy, and as a sop to his private school supporters. Thus, we remain stuck with it against all appeals to reason.
But if Nutmeggers are certain in their negative views of NCLB, they are less certain about almost every other aspect of education. What, for example, should we do about dropouts? Approximately a third of our kids still don't graduate from high school. And what about racial isolation? Our schools are more segregated now than before Brown v. Board of Education.
Well, if the truth were known, we citizens don't actually care that much about graduation rates and segregation. As long as our own kid graduates and gets into college, what's the problem? And maybe segregation even helps. It's mostly minority and poor kids who falter in school and make it harder for ours kids to learn. Most Nutmeggers therefore aren't going to lose a lot of sleep if zoning laws and real estate prices keep those bad influences bottled up in just a few towns.
Well aware of this unspoken dynamic, local politicians often focus their education platforms instead on simply getting more money from the state for their own town. No one ever lost an election doing that. And that money, if received, is generally aimed at reducing taxes, not reducing dropouts.
In fact, most of us are pretty darn happy with our schools just the way they are. Connecticut's blessed home rule legacy from colonial times allows every village to have its own fiercely independent school district, about 135 in all that allows us to keep out the riff-raff. These districts perform very well indeed and have put our state high up in the national rankings. However, if you can't afford to live in one of those snazzy towns, and can't afford private school either, then your kid is just going to have to muddle through in a more marginal system. Sorry.
Educators are naturally well aware of all this and do the best they can to cope. Those in low-income districts seek funding for magnet schools, charter schools, after-school programs, breakfasts, tutors, Saturday academies, and what-have-you. They often shell out their own cash to buy classroom supplies, and they work overtime to help troubled kids. But they're all stopgaps.
Now some in Connecticut are looking at Maryland as a model. It's a state noted for public school reform. But not all those reforms would be popular here. One is the spending of a lot more money. You can imagine how well that idea would sell in our capitol. Another is reducing the number of school districts. Maryland has only 23, thus throwing lots of rich and poor towns in together. Good luck.
The ultimate solution, of course is one that all professionals understand. Unfortunately, it flies in the face of the great American concept of self-reliance. The idea would be to put all pupils on an equal footing long before they ever set foot in a classroom. Its elements involve such heretical notions as a universal living wage, prenatal care, postnatal care, health insurance, decent housing, adequate food, day care, preschool, public transportation, and other common aspects of civilized life.
Worse luck, it probably only weakens the case for this approach to point out that most European countries already do it. America doesn't have much truck with Europe these days. But we should nonetheless grasp in our own minds the reality of this fundamental cure for crummy school performance. That understanding at least helps protect us against politicians selling educational snake oil.
(Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk.)