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The inequality at the heart of America’s education system
HARTFORD, Conn.— This is one of the wealthiest states in the union. But thousands of children here attend schools that are among the worst in the country. While students in higher-income towns such as Greenwich and Darien have easy access to guidance counselors, school psychologists, personal laptops, and up-to-date textbooks, those in high-poverty areas like Bridgeport and New Britain don’t. Such districts tend to have more students in need of extra help, and yet they have fewer guidance counselors, tutors, and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts, according to an ongoing lawsuit. Greenwich spends $6,000 more per pupil per year than Bridgeport does, according to the State Department of Education.
The discrepancies occur largely because public school districts in Connecticut, and in much of America, are run by local cities and towns and are funded by local property taxes. High-poverty areas like Bridgeport and New Britain have lower home values and collect less taxes, and so can’t raise as much money as a place like Darien or Greenwich, where homes are worth millions of dollars. Plaintiffs in a decade-old lawsuit in Connecticut, which heard closing arguments earlier this month, argue that the state should be required to ameliorate these discrepancies. Filed by a coalition of parents, students, teachers, unions, and other residents in 2005, the lawsuit, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell, will decide whether inequality in school funding violates the state’s constitution.
The system is unconstitutional,” the attorney for the plaintiffs Joseph P. Moodhe argued in Hartford Superior Court earlier this month, “because it is inadequately funded and because it is inequitably distributed.”
Connecticut is not the first state to wrestle with the conundrum caused by relying heavily on local property taxes to fund schools; since the 1970s, nearly every state has had litigation over equitable education, according to Michael Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University. Indeed, the CCJEF lawsuit, first filed in 2005, is the state’s second major lawsuit on equity. The first, in 1977, resulted in the state being required to redistribute some funds among districts, though the plaintiffs in the CCJEF case argue the state has abandoned that system, called Educational Cost Sharing.