The New York Times Does Connecticut Schools

A few days ago I wrote a post commenting on the recent and preposterous court decision in Connecticut, where the judge made a King Canute-like order to Connecticut's government to behave "rationally" and thereby fix its failing schools.  Yesterday, the New York Times decided to weigh in on the same subject, with a front page article ("In Connecticut, Wealth Gulf Divides Schools") as well as a lead editorial ("A Holistic Ruling on Broken Schools").  You won't be surprised to learn that their editorial take on the situation is more or less the opposite of mine.  ("[Connecticut] should welcome the judge's invitation to think more broadly about the problem of educational inequality.")  But what's more significant is that the Times's "news" article promotes a completely false narrative about poor districts getting systematically deprived of resources, while the article provides none of the relevant and easily-available data that totally disprove that narrative.  I guess you won't be surprised to learn that either. 

To illustrate the "wealth gulf" supposedly dividing Connecticut's schools, the Times picks two adjacent districts for its focus:  Bridgeport and Fairfield.  Bridgeport is Connecticut's largest city, located about 50 miles Northeast of New York City, and known for its poor and largely black student population.  Fairfield is the town adjacent to Bridgeport on the West (closer to New York City) and is a wealthy suburban district.  

With the exception of a couple of tidbits about per student spending, the Times article is devoid of statistics or other hard information.  (The tidbits of hard information are that (1) "In the 2014-15 school year, Bridgeport spent about $14,000 per student while Fairfield spent nearly $16,000," and (2) "[S]everal [Connecticut] districts spend more than $25,000 per student.")  For the rest, instead of hard information on actual available resources, the article gives a forum to various government functionaries interested in pleading for more money for themselves despite their manifest failures.  Thus we get quotes from people like Bridgeport's "interim superintendent of schools" Frances Rabinowitz, and an assistant superintendent, Aresta Johnson.  We get fed things like the following:

Ms. Rabinowitz started in Bridgeport as a teacher, then left the city 14 years ago for positions elsewhere, including a job as an associate commissioner for education for the state. When she returned to the district in 2014, she said, it was in even worse shape than when she left.  “The stripping of resources was amazing to me,” she said.

Or this:

In the morning, school buses line the circular driveway of Fairfield Ludlowe High School, dispatching a stream of students into the sandy-brick building buffered by an expansive, tree-lined lawn.  At Bridgeport’s Warren Harding High School, there is no line of buses. As Judge Moukawsher noted, the city cannot afford them for its high school students.

Or this:

Because schools are heavily supported by local property taxes, as the judge pointed out, a property-poor town like Bridgeport has less money for its schools, even while taxing its residents at higher rates. And when funds fall short — for things as basic as paper, as they sometimes do — there is no way to make it up.

Now, can we kindly get some real information?  Fortunately, the Connecticut Department of Education puts out good amounts of data on school enrollment and spending, including some historical data.  Here is a chart of total and per student spending by town for the 2014/15 school year.  Here is a link to download an Excel spreadsheet that contains data for the period 2006 - 15 by year on such things as total spending by town, and percent of revenue for each district coming from local, state and federal sources.  What do we learn?

  • Looking at the chart of 2014-15 per student spending by town, you really can't find any kind of systematic gulf between spending in wealthy and poor towns, or indeed much of a difference at all.  Super-poor Hartford is actually at the higher end of spending at $19,362 per student, which is more even than super-wealthy New Canaan ($19,171).  While Bridgeport ($13,923) does indeed spend a little less than Fairfield ($15,920) per student, Hartford, New Haven ($17,194), and Stamford ($17,409) all spend more than Fairfield.  (Obviously the Times did not select Bridgeport randomly for its article.  Are you surprised?)  And literally every place in Connecticut spends well more than the national average spending of about $11,000 per student.
  • Those evil districts that the Times identifies (without naming any) as spending $25,000 and up per student turn out to be predominantly in the very-sparsely-populated Northwest corner of the state.  The highest spending town on a per student basis is Cornwall ($30,364), which only has 111 students in the K-12 grades.  Clearly, if you need to have a teacher for 10 and fewer students in each grade, it's going to cost more per student.  The districts in question have a tiny fraction of the state's population, and get almost no state aid to fund their schools.
  • The data on sources of revenue provide a breathtaking picture of the degree to which Connecticut, and to some extent the federal government, already allocate resources massively toward the poorer districts, while leaving the wealthier districts almost completely on their own.  Thus Fairfield gets 93.7% of its operating revenue from local sources, and only 4.7% from the state, and 1.5% federal.  In Bridgeport it's 20.6% local, 69.8% state, and 7.9% federal.  (Do you think the Times might have mentioned this vast disparity when they said there is "no way to make it up" for Bridgeport when local property taxes fall short in providing revenue?)  The same vast disparity holds for all of the poor versus wealthy towns.  Examples of 2014-15 revenue sources for poor towns and cities: Hartford -- state 68.6%, local 21.9%, federal 6.3%; New Haven -- state 61.1%, local 24.5%, federal 12.8%; New London -- state 59.0%, local 30.3%, federal 6.8%; Waterbury -- state 57.1%, local 35.9%, federal 6.1%.  Examples of wealthy towns:  Darien -- state 4.6%, local 94.0%, federal 1.3%; Greenwich -- state 2.5%, local 95.3%, federal 1.6%; New Canaan -- state 2.6%, local 95.9%, federal 1.1%. 
  • The line from the Bridgeport school superintendent about "stripping of resources" from the Bridgeport schools is not supported by the data.  In 2006-07, Bridgeport got $170.4 million for its schools from the state, and provided $61.6 million from local sources.  By 2014-15, the local contribution had remained almost constant at $62.4 million, while the state contribution had gone up almost 25% to $211.7 million.  A far more accurate characterization than Ms. Rabinowitz's would be that every year the state throws more and more money at Bridgeport for its continued failure.

For anyone willing to look at the data, Connecticut's experience with school funding provides the perfect disproof of the proposition that more money can fix failing schools.  You will never find that out from the Times, which systematically suppresses all of the real information, while lazily handing a forum to failing functionaries who seek more money to expand their staffs and budgets and their failing empires.   

As commenter Steve Walsh said at the prior post on this subject, Connecticut's current system of school finance rewards failure.  As long as they continue to reward failure, they will continue to fail.