For years, Connecticut has been challenged in court to show that it provides the minimally adequate education the constitution mandates to all students, even in the most impoverished school districts. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that it is doing so.
It is not the court’s responsibility, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote for the majority, to “eliminate all of the societal deficiencies that continue to frustrate the state’s educational efforts.” The students must be able to take advantage of the educational opportunities furnished by the state.
That decision may end the legal action (or not) but it certainly won’t end the argument. The minority opinion asserted that it’s about more than providing buildings and teachers; the state must also make sure the kids “are not preoccupied by hunger, fear for their personal safety or other serious distractions as to render learning effectively impossible.”
But what are the schools, or the state that funds them, supposed to do? Serve breakfast and lunch? Done, in many schools. Maintain security in the building? Check. But how do you eliminate “other serious distractions” that make learning “effectively impossible”? How?
The Supreme Court case followed a 2016 ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher, but his main points were that the state should provide adequate educational opportunity to all students – not adequate education, because how can you guarantee that? – and that much of what the state has been doing to help fund poor districts has been irrational, having more to do with politics than science.
He wanted a rational process. What we have instead is politics, an inherently messy and inefficient art.
And yet, Connecticut has demonstrated good faith in the way it fortifies the poorer school systems with Education Cost Sharing grants. Less than a year ago I looked up the numbers and discovered that threadbare Hartford gets 70 percent of its school budget from the state till, while posh Greenwich gets only 3 percent.
How much more can the state be expected to do? And is there any amount of state funding that can eliminate “hunger, fear … or other serious distractions” that interfere with learning. The state of Connecticut is not God – as even a quick glance at its balance sheet will reveal.
But, lest we assume that this trend of expecting the schools to take a more and more therapeutic role toward students is limited to the state’s poorer communities, we need only to look at what’s happening in Wallingford, where the school district recently discovered a need for a new program for children in grades K-2 with severe social and emotional needs.
This will require hiring social workers and psychologists to work with para-educators in a smaller classroom environment to help some of the school systems youngest charges deal with anxiety, trauma and other issues.
Despite tight budgets, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo finds “a tremendous need ... The mental health professionals at the elementary level are so, so, so needed” because of students suffering from “trauma” or “emotional issues.”
What happened? Why this big need now? And why in Wallingford? No one seems to know. Is this a crisis?
Sure sounds like one.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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