AP NEWS

Court illogical on school funding

April 7, 2019

Last year, Connecticut’s highest court ruled, in the school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell, that our state constitution only guarantees public school students the bare minimum of teachers, buildings and instrumentalities of learning, like books and pencils. The court ruled that services that support our neediest students, such as bilingual teachers, additional time and academic support, support staff such as counselors, and preschool were not needed for an adequate education.

The Court acknowledged that the absence of these services “makes it extremely difficult for many students in the state’s neediest school districts to take advantage of the state’s educational offerings.” Yet it refused to rule that these resources are constitutionally required.

The Court’s illogical conclusion is inconsistent with judicial precedent in school funding cases across the nation, common educational practice and neuroscience.

Children cannot compartmentalize their brains. They cannot set aside their social, emotional and behavioral selves when they sit down in a classroom to learn. Their life experiences directly affect the brain’s architecture. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) inhibit development of memory, executive function and other neural connections directly implicated in learning. ACEs include the stress associated with living in poverty, witnessing or being a victim violence, neglect, parental separation or incarceration, exposure to mental illness or substance abuse. Children with three or more ACEs are significantly more likely to fail a grade, be absent, be suspended or expelled, be referred to special education, and to drop out of school.

New research in Connecticut reinforces the fact, apparent to everyone except the CCJEF majority, that school must have the resources to help students mitigate the social, emotional and behavioral obstacles to successful learning.

Comprehensive school counseling is a potent tool to enable children to mitigate the effects of ACEs and promote learning.

Scholars found that counseling has a significant impact on Connecticut students’ academic outcomes. A 2012 study, http://bit.ly/2UkvK8a, revealed that, controlling for socio-economic levels, per-pupil spending and enrollment size, schools with low student-counselor ratios had significantly lower suspension rates. Students who are suspended are less likely to graduate. Moreover, the study found that schools where counselors were able to spend more time on tasks appropriate for counselors, such as career and college counseling, and less time on non-guidance tasks, such as substitute teaching or clerical tasks, had better attendance and graduation rates. Chronically absent students are also less likely to graduate. The ratios that produced the lowest suspension rates were between 112-157 students to a counselor.

The study also found that as per-pupil spending decreased, student-counselor ratios significantly increased. Moreover, underfunded schools are more likely to be understaffed overall and therefore are more likely to require that counselors engage in non-guidance tasks.

A new Connecticut study, http://bit.ly/2WQoPAl, confirms and extends the earlier findings. This study also found, controlling for socio-economic status, that districts with K-12 counselors had lower suspension and chronic absenteeism rates and higher graduation rates than districts with counselors starting in sixth grade.

Does Connecticut’s persistent underfunding of poor school districts affect these essential educational resources?

Let’s examine the financial condition of three CCJEF districts: Bridgeport, New Britain and Windham. Windham has consistently been unable to raise spending enough to maintain the same level of services each year. Over the past three years, Bridgeport cut $38 million dollars from its budget and is facing a $16 million deficit this year. New Britain’s school board president recently warned that the district is at its last dollars.

Consequently, all three districts have cut and are once again facing cuts to services critical to support learning for vulnerable populations such as: extended day programs, intervention services, family resource centers, para-educators, social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors. New Britain and Bridgeport are considering closing schools.

None of the three districts has guidance counselors in elementary school. Student-counselor ratios in the districts are well above the ratios found in the studies to yield positive results; with ratios reaching almost 700:1. Students in these high-poverty districts likely have many ACEs in need of mitigation.

Indeed, these underfunded districts have higher suspension and chronic absenteeism rates, and lower graduation rates, often significantly so, than the state average. And their outcomes are markedly worse than Connecticut’s affluent districts.

Student support services such as counselors are as essential to learning as books, teachers and buildings. Learning cannot occur without attending to children’s basic emotional, social and behavioral needs.

Our Supreme Court did not grasp this concept — our political leaders must. If we want academic outcomes to improve, Connecticut must fund support services in schools. Period.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.