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Connecticut Has Stark Inequities in Neighborhood School Districts

The state is home to 23 of the top 300 most unequal school system borders in the country, including eight of the top 100. Only three states have more entries in the top 100, all of which have significantly larger populations.

Connecticut is home to some of the nation's starkest inequality between neighboring school districts, new data shows.

As part of a project examining disparities in education, the Washington D.C.-based think tank New America analyzed thousands of adjacent school systems across the U.S., comparing the median household income of one district against the other. By this measure, previously unpublished data shows, Connecticut is home to 23 of the top 300 most unequal borders in the country, including eight of the top 100.

In most cases, these borders are between the state's largest cities and their suburbs, though in some instances the disadvantaged district is a small city or suburb. The border between Hartford and South Windsor represents the starkest disparity, followed by Hartford and West Hartford, Bridgeport and Fairfield, Bridgeport and Trumbull, and Waterbury and Cheshire.

Only three states have more entries on the top 100 than Connecticut, and all three ( California, Ohio and New Jersey) have much larger populations.

Zahava Stadler, project director for New America's Education Funding Equity initiative, attributed Connecticut's prominence on the list to the state's high level of inequality, as well as its tightly drawn town borders and municipally run school systems.

"It is absolutely notable that a state of the size of Connecticut has so many of the 100 most segregating borders by this metric, and it tells us two things," Stadler said. "One, there's a lot of inequality in the state of Connecticut, and it's showing up in our schools. And two, Connecticut has altogether too many school districts."

Whereas in some places diverse municipalities share resources under regional or county school districts, Stadler noted, Connecticut districts are typically defined by municipal borders, leaving poorer communities separated from wealthier ones.

Disparities between neighboring districts directly affect students, Stadler said, limiting opportunities for those in poorer communities. Data from the Hartford-based School and State Finance Project shows that Connecticut's poorest cities often spend far less per-pupil on education than their wealthier neighbors, despite receiving significant state and federal aid.

New America collected data on income disparities among neighboring school districts as part of a national report on the subject, which cites Connecticut as being "home to some particularly stark divides."

"What we were looking at is, where do borders most powerfully separate kids from resources and from each other?" Stadler said.

In Connecticut and elsewhere, these socioeconomic gaps correlate closely with racial disparities, the report notes, with heavily Black and Latino districts often poorer than majority white ones.

Though the New America report mostly considers the problem through comparing poverty rates in neighboring communities, researchers also collected data based on median household income, which they shared with CT Insider. Stadler said analysis based on median household income more effectively conveys disparities in Connecticut and other wealthy states.

Jordan Abbott, a data analyst who co-wrote the New America report with Stadler, called Connecticut "a really clean and clear example" of how district borders drive segregation.

"Districts have been drawn along municipal lines, so that only further isolates these communities and shunts them into very small, narrowly defined schools," he said.

Under a century-old state law, Connecticut school districts are defined by municipal borders, with local boards of education retaining full control over school districts in their towns. Towns can choose to form regional districts but do so only rarely — and almost never with neighboring districts with drastically different racial or socioeconomic profiles.

For years, advocates have advocated a more regional approach as a way of improving racial integration and economic equality. In 1996, a judge in the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill integration case called the law granting local control over education "the single most important factor contributing to the present concentration of racial and ethnic minorities" in Hartford schools.

Regionalization proposals, however, often face opposition from officials and residents of smaller suburban and rural towns who value local control and aren't anxious to share resources with neighbors.

While there is currently no serious legislative push for a more regional approach to education, lawmakers continue to debate school funding levels, with an eye toward helping reducing disparities between the state's wealthier districts and its poorest ones.

Last year, legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont agreed to an additional $150 million for K-12 education, much of which was ear-marked for poor, urban districts. This year, Lamont has proposed redirecting some of that money to other areas of the state budget, while fellow Democrats in the legislature have promised to preserve the committed funds.

The issue will be resolved in the coming weeks, as lawmakers negotiate a final budget for the coming fiscal year.

According to New America's report, the school district border with the nation's greatest socioeconomic disparity is between East Orange and Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The border between Dallas and Highland Park, Texas is next, followed by the border between Warrensville and Orange City, Ohio.

Connecticut's most unequal border, between Hartford and South Windsor, ranks 14th, according to New America's analysis, with South Windsor's median household income more than three times that of Hartford.

(c)2024 The Register Citizen, Torrington, Conn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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