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Regionalization plans don’t go far enough

February 8, 2019

Almost before it was announced, a plan to force the regionalization of schools in Connecticut was declared dead in the water.

The bill came from the state Senate president, New Haven Democrat Martin Looney, and it would create a commission to combine districts with a population of less than 40,000, somewhat in line with the state’s probate court system. Since it would apply to almost every town and city in Connecticut, the backlash was fierce, and predictable.

“I chose to move here 31 years ago, specifically for Wilton schools and not for Norwalk,” one letter writer stated.

“Please tell Sen. Looney to fix his district and towns and not to steal quality education, educators and money from our towns due to the mismanagement within his District 11 and other large districts,” a Weston public official said in another letter.

The outrage came from both parties, including some newly elected Democrats in Fairfield County.

The wording of the legislation is vague, but the point was not to combine classrooms and bus routes or send suburban kids into the cities, or vice versa. Looney said the bill’s intention was to reduce the number of administrators.

“It’s to try to focus more resources on the children and the needs of the children rather than expensive bureaucracies,” Looney said. “We have too many small-town central bureaucracies.”

As is often noted, Connecticut is the third-smallest state in the nation and yet we have 169 towns and cities and many have individual, overlapping services that defy logic. A separate animal shelter and police chief and schools superintendent in each town doesn’t always make sense. But getting anyone to give up home rule is usually doomed from the start.

In the abstract, consolidation is a popular way to save money and increase efficiency, but it’s not that simple. As Adam Dunsby, the first selectman of Easton, argued, many services are already regionalized, including smaller school districts, as well as police under the resident state trooper program, regional planning agencies and more.

“Those who think there are more savings to be had have the responsibility to put forward specific plans, not just catchphrases,” Dunsby said.

So here’s something beyond a catchphrase. The state should enact Looney’s bill, but go beyond back-office functions. Combine the districts, city into suburb, Bridgeport into Easton, with far-flung districts staying mostly as they are. Set a geographic limit, maybe, but Connecticut is a closely packed state and plenty of intratown bus routes are often an hour or more anyway.

As one of the few lawmakers to point out the obvious, New Haven Rep. Roland Lemar, said, “A lot of communities have benefited greatly by the structural inequities that are inherent in our system today.” He added that to move ahead, “We have to have conversations that are hard and challenging.”

Connecticut doesn’t like to think of itself this way, but schools here and around the Northeast are as segregated as any in the country. City schools frequently have 90 percent or more nonwhite students, while many suburban districts are the opposite. But because these enrollments are based on where people live, rather than policies barring people from attending, they don’t fit what most people imagine segregation to mean.

There is voluminous research showing the benefits from integrated classrooms to disadvantaged students — kids in cities, mostly — without causing harm to well-off students. It has seen success in other parts of the country. It is a true win-win. Integration — not magnet schools, funding formulas or interdistrict partnerships — is the key to helping the most children do as well as they can in school.

Without integrating schools, the state is perpetuating a system that in effect writes off thousands of students every year in disadvantaged urban areas. It’s not impossible to succeed in an underfunded segregated school, but it is much harder.

We can start to solve that problem. The problem isn’t that Looney’s bill is too radical, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough.

hbailey@hearstmediact.com

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