Op-Ed: Who Should Control New Canaan’s Schools?

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The new majority in Hartford is in the process of advancing several bills to force school regionalization in order to redistribute resources and remove decision-making from local schools.

State Rep. Michelle Cook (D-65th) emphasized her view that such legislation should not be voluntary:

“I know that forcing people to do things is not always the right way to go, but sometimes we have to help people get there because they’re not going to get there on their own.”

One fellow supporter of forced school regionalization mocked grassroots efforts to oppose the bills:

“Over the last four days, we’ve seen people subject to great distress [laughter] over the idea of regionalizing educational services and I think that is a shame because a lot of communities have benefitted greatly by the structural inequities that are inherent in our system today.” — State Rep. Roland Lemar (D-96th), Majority Caucus Chair

One school regionalization bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Martin Looney (D-11th), indicated that his bill is the opening gambit in his larger effort to regionalize tax base “sharing.” With strong party majorities in both houses, the president pro tempore of the state Senate is well positioned to advance this effort. However, many local leaders have expressed opposition.

“… It looks again that the legislature is looking to use policy as a blunt instrument in the state.”  — Dr. Bryan Luizzi, New Canaan Schools Superintendent 

“While New Canaan and Darien share many similarities, the reality is that New Canaan is already facing significant fiscal challenges. New Canaan carries the highest debt per capita in the state—a debt balance that is two times larger than Darien’s and carries annual debt service expenses that exceed Darien’s by almost 50 percent. Moreover, while Darien’s tax base is stable, New Canaan’s tax base is facing decline.” — John Sini, Jr., Darien Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman

Their voices have been joined by a growing number of concerned families who want to maintain local control of our schools. Over the past week, the group Hands Off Our Schools, which was formed to oppose forced regionalization, has grown by more than 60 percent. 

So why are politicians in Hartford picking on the state’s smaller school districts such as New Canaan? Does data indicate that small school districts are the problem? Quite the opposite. The state’s best districts—New Canaan, Westport, Darien, Weston, Amity, and Wilton—are all small enough to lose local autonomy under proposed legislation. However, based on their records of academic excellence, they don’t need to be taken over—they need to be copied.

In comparison, the large districts favored by Hartford politicians are… terrible. The largest districts in the state such as New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford, and Waterbury are also some of the worst. They have awful academic outcomes and squander money through a combination of ineptitude and corruption. To say that their political leadership is criminal is not an insult. In many cases it is literally the case. Small district student proficiency in math and reading is far better. In fact, it isn’t just better than their students but in some large districts it is better than their teachers.

It is a bizarre reverse form of meritocracy to disrupt New Canaan while maintaining the autonomy of some of the most dysfunctional school districts in the country. For one nearby example, Bridgeport would keep control of a school district that manages to teach kids at a rate of 23 percent proficiency in reading and 10 percent in math. It is not obvious what they spend $400 million on, but it isn’t reading, writing or arithmetic. In fairness, not that many dollars reach their classroom (over a third is in “overhead” which is probably the most polite way to describe it). If any district deserves to lose its autonomy, logic would argue for Bridgeport getting taken over and New Canaan left unmolested.

So if Hartford politicians want to improve education, they could start by fixing the failing large districts instead of interfering with what is already working in the best districts. Come after New Canaan to learn what’s working, but then leave us alone to educate our kids locally. Who should control New Canaan’s schools? New Canaan should. With respect to our neighbors, we don’t need to merge with Darien, we don’t need to become more like Bridgeport, and we don’t need to be dictated to by Hartford.

25 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Who Should Control New Canaan’s Schools?

  1. Chris- I am not for “regionalization” per se and I agree that we need to watch this issue carefully. But it’s hard to take any of your arguments seriously when you say things like New Canaan and Darien’s school systems should be copied by Bridgeport and Waterbury. I completely disagree that we have anything to teach those districts about educating large populations of kids living in poverty and large numbers of students who are learning English. Honestly. Tearing down those with less than us, and patting our backs for doing such a good job when we have so much is both unhelpful and unattractive.

    • Thanks for sharing your view, Jenn. My experience in Harlem has been a different one — that students from all neighborhoods can become high achievers based on replicable behavior and decision-making. Students from the least privileged backgrounds who are exposed to rigorous academic programs can thrive, often meaningfully converging on the outcomes of students in more prosperous neighborhoods. Replicable behaviors such as number of hours of study outside of the classroom have stronger correlation with outcomes than do K-12 spending, which has weak correlations within the normal range.

      That being said, I understand the view that Connecticut’s large school districts have nothing to learn, despite the highest ratios of spending to academic outcomes, from the districts with the lower ratios of spending to academic outcomes. If that is true, perhaps it is because different communities require their own solutions to their specific needs, and that is why regionalization could be harmful to a variety of school districts. For example, is it acceptable that 90% of Bridgeport students fail to be proficient in math because many of them live in poverty? No. Speaking from personal experience, I find those outcomes unacceptable in large part because of directly witnessing and participating in programs in which precisely such kids excel. How? Not by forced collectivization or falling back on socioeconomic excuses, but by quite the opposite direction – smaller school programs with high expectations. I have been repeatedly impressed how kids who are born with every conceivable legitimate excuse for failure from poverty to language barriers are able to meet such high expectations.

      You would be too.

      • Chris,

        I am one of those kids who grew up in Harlem and went to Harlem public schools. This is a great country because although I did not exactly get the best education possible, I got an education, and it has enabled me to purchase a home in a town as wonderful as New Canaan. From my experience, it’s all about educating the parents, and then they can help to start educating the kids at home first. My mother never once read me a book or helped me do my homework, or even asked me if my homework was done, as she was simply busy working all the time. I came to New Canaan from Stamford because I wanted a sense of community, growing up in NYC, you go to so many different schools, and you constantly have to lose all of your friends from elementary school in Middle School, and then when you get to high school you lose your middle school friends. Unfortunately for me, I only know one or two elementary school friends that graduated from college because you simply lose contact with everyone with all of the school changes. I wanted to live in a town where my kids would know their friends from Kindergarten all the way through High School, and as good as the Darien public school system may be, I do not want our resources consolidated together because there is only one one PTA board, one superintendent etc, so we will have less power to control our schools and make changes. I do not understand why Hartford politicians are forcing this on communities, it should be a choice. I don’t think school buses budget or superintendent salary is the reason property taxes are sky high in some of these towns.

        • Chris, I am another “kid” with a story similar to Anthony’s. I came to this country not speaking English and went to FDR in Brooklyn. Some of my “broken English” friends did well enough to go on to attend Ivy League. As far as mixed socioeconomic schools go no need to look further than Styvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. My husband and I also took our kids to Stanford first, where after 4 years of famed Westover my son’s teacher told us she suspected a learning disability. Concerned, we requested testing to zoom in on the issue. The tests not only didn’t show any disability, they showed IQ of 145 and above average attention span. IMHO a teacher who couldn’t tell a gifted student from a disabled one should’ve been fired. My other son, who did struggle with dyslexia was told the school is overwhelmed and cannot help him period. Absolutely disgusted with the school we moved to New Canaan, where within just 2 months the teacher told us our son was identified as a candidate for their gifted program. Luckily by that time we got our other son’s reading under control ourselves, so both of our children are now absolutely thriving in New Canaan surrounded by the kids of all sorts of backgrounds, who all share ambition and strive to excell.

  2. There is a long tradition of local control in New England — schools in particular, which are the heart and soul of our communities, especially smaller ones. The goals should be preserving, not tearing down, communities, and great education for our kids. These consolidation proposals hurt, not help.

  3. To early for me to to say yes or no — if Darien and NC schools were
    merged into one district — what does it mean? Is it about home rule
    or is it about cost savings — it’s not poor vs richer towns or city’s
    Is it about cost savings ? would there be 2 BOE’s ? a combined
    Darien and NC district would surly have the same standards for their schools — would we need 2 superintendents and 2 of the many support staff These are good questions

  4. Chris is correct in his article and subsequent comment.

    Regionalization will serve to spread rather than contain the problems in Connecticut’s under-performing towns and cities. Spreading those problems will only exacerbate the process of genuinely addressing them.

    Furthermore it’s rarely the case that additional funding actually leads to better educational outcomes. The successes of various charter schools in New York have proven this beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Educational outcomes have far more to do with stability at home, the importance of education within one’s family and neighbors, etc. Regionalism will do nothing to address the persistent and often willfully unrecognized causes at the root of the problem/s.

    Regionalism, rather, is a solution in search of a problem, and as a solution it will likely do more harm than good.

    Connecticut has sustained and even flourished for so long without such measures. The problems Connecticut faces as a state, and the individual challenges we face in our local communities have little to nothing to do with the system of democracy and local control that this state and region have maintained since the country was founded. That is, among other things, the local control over a community’s government and schooling.

    Connecticut can and should do better than these unnecessary proposals.

  5. I’ve gotten a lot of responses to the forced regionalization issue; here’s my favorite. It is from a mother in Ridgefield:

    “I just literally moved here at Christmas specifically for the schools!! I know not a soul here at the moment. I’m aghast about this. I own a home in North Haven and we purposely left there so my daughter would be in a better school district. And While North Haven is not a bad place to be clear, I wanted to be in a town with 1) little crime, 2) amazing schools. I retired last year after working 21 years in Marshal/Probation field in New Haven so I am aware of issues in bigger cities and surrounding towns. That’s why I left. And here we are. I am upset. I would have left CT if it wasn’t for towns like Ridgefield and the integrity it has. Listen, I know I sound harsh and my heart goes out to underprivileged kids. I’ve seen firsthand the struggles they face. I spent 25 years in a career to help. But this is no solution. I worked my tail off and my husband did, so we could move to a place where looking over my shoulder wouldn’t be an everyday occurrence. I am not ashamed to admit I moved my family to a place where crime is low and schools are top notch and I left a town some would consider adequate; maybe even good. Except, I didn’t want average. I wanted one of the best. There’s a reason a 3,000 sq ft house is priced double here. This bill will slowly erode what tranquility and peace of mind in property values, safe neighborhoods and quality education. This will drive folks to 1) move and 2) private schools.”

  6. At least NC and Darien are on level playing fields (still not necessary to combine).
    What About Wilton & Norwalk?
    Wilton Public Schools – #6 in Best School Districts in Connecticut
    A+ – Overall Grade. (NICHE)
    Norwalk School District #83 in Best School Districts in Connecticut, B Overall Grade Norwalk, CT (NICHE)…yikes…Maybe Busing will be the next objective? Socialism not too far off.

    • This assumes they stick to the probate boundaries, which in my opinion, are arbitrary, and probably unlikely. Wilton/Norwalk and Stamford would both have populations over 100K….I don’t think a region of 40K sandwiched in between would be viable. This may be just a bill to get people talking, but like so many bills that pretend to create cost savings, those advocating for them never prove what is actually saved.

  7. Ok,You take away the grammer schools in any little town then you take away just that ,a little town and its reason for being..I now live in portland ct,orig New Canaan..if no school why would one(a young family) move in ??ct is losing its population this regionalization will not help,we will lose “The Community”..why would some one move into a town with no grammer school,they will look else where..no new families not good for any town.

    • As a long time realtor and native of Weston, I agree. Over the years the Weston school system is the main reason families wanted to move to the town. We are already experiencing a downturn and this would not help.

  8. While the bill in its current form pairs New Canaan with Darien, there’s still a great deal of time that the pairings could be easily changed to include the larger neighboring cities.

    Moreover, from a Darien taxpayer’s perspective, there is zero interest to consolidate with New Canaan.

  9. We moved to New Canaan because it is a great community with the best schools!
    If the Looney bill for school regionalization is passed, people will leave CT en masse, and property values will tank, causing a cascade effect with irrevocable damage to the GREAT school systems, and the CT tax base as a whole.

  10. If the large districts have such bum schools, maybe education would be improved by passing a bill to require large districts to split into smaller school districts, instead of requiring smaller districts to merge. That’s not such an outrageous idea. A decade ago, I was talking with a newly minted adult who had been at Stamford High School before being lucky enough to get a scholarship to a private school. Not to single out Stamford, but she said the problem at Stamford High was that she was just a number in a big school. If she didn’t do her homework, nothing happened – except that she got poor grades. At the much smaller private school, by contrast, when she didn’t do her homework, someone talked to her and to her parents, wanting to know why. They made it too much bother to not do her homework, so she started doing the work, found out it’s not that hard, and did much better.

    As for supposed cost savings from merging schools, have they counted the costs of having to build new, larger schools to house twice the students, or the increased costs of busing students further?

  11. Forced regionalization of schools, broad overreach of 8-30g (CT’s affordable housing statute), additional burdensome taxation on groceries and medicines, the imposition of punitive tolls, and Aquarion claiming a well in Wilton so they can divert OUR water to Stamford, Greenwich & other neighboring towns….anyone connecting the dots and seeing Agenda 21 here? What is the good news coming out of Hartford — a plastic bag ban? Is it not laughably obvious that this has never been about efficiency or improving the lives of their constituents? What it is about is redistributing resources, lowering our quality of life, and restricting our rights all in service to a terribly warped socialist vision.

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