The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) is certainly to be commended in publishing its Blueprint to Transform Connecticut's Public Schools. Your own work in developing consensus among your 164 superintendents is evident and inspiring.
Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK) is an organization of parents, providers, attorneys and advocates that advocates, legislates and educates on behalf of students with disabilities. We provide information for parents, lobby in front of the legislature, hold conferences, and conduct a weekly Facebook Live program which is viewed by thousands. SEEK finds a great deal of common ground with CAPSS, based on this report. We want to work collaboratively with you to press the Legislature to make meaningful long-term changes to promote excellence in public education in Connecticut.
What follows is a section-by-section appraisal of those of the 30 recommendation areas contained in the Blueprint that fall within SEEK's mission. We ask you to consider modifying your recommendations in accordance with these suggestions.
1 - 3. Overall State Support. ECS Funding.
While we agree that the 41% state support share is too low, we think your proposal is far too modest. As long as Connecticut relies of local property taxes to fund education, the horrible inequities in educational funding between districts will remain. Local property taxes are based on a grand list of taxable property. The average grand list per enrolled student in the 21 school districts that have a majority of Black and Latinx students (MM districts) is $517,150, while the average grand list per student in the remaining 145 districts is $881,861, or 71% higher. The range on a district level is even more extreme. The grand list per student in Hartford is
$198,108, while the grand list per student in Greenwich is $3,725,521, or 19 times as much. Hence, the tax burden for education in a wealthy town is far lower, in terms of percentage of income, than it is in a less wealthy and less property-rich town.
To the extent that a district meets its minimum budget requirement, the remaining portion of the ECS grant can be diverted to the town. At the very least, education funding needs to go for education. Still, there is simply no formulation of the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula that can equalize funding.
Moreover, equity is not the same as equal funding. For the 21 MM districts, the average per pupil expenditure was $16,590 during the 2017-18 school year. For the other 145 districts, the average was $18,339, or about 11% higher. This is true despite the fact that the lion's share of state funding goes to these 21 districts, based on how the educational cost sharing grants are calculated, federal Title I funding, and supplemental funding such as Connecticut's Alliance district program. Yet, it simply costs more to educate students in Bridgeport and Hartford than it does to educate them in New Canaan or Darien. Poverty, lack of English as a first language, and special education needs all make education a more expensive enterprise in urban areas than in suburban areas.
One added cost figure is English language learners. More than 15% of the students in the 21 MM districts are English language learners, while only 3% of the students in the 145 remaining districts are. We use free and reduced-price lunch as an indicator of poverty. More than two thirds of the students in the MM districts are entitled to free and reduced-price lunch, while fewer than three in ten students in the other districts are eligible. As for students with disabilities, the 21 MM districts have 17.17% of their students designated as eligible for special education, while the 145 other districts have 14.33% of their students designated as eligible for special education services. Based on these three factors alone, the cost of educating a student in one of Connecticut's cities is far higher than the cost of educating a student in a suburban town. In spite of this, the average per pupil cost in MM districts is far lower than in the other districts.
So, the goal of any long-term plan needs to be to produce equitable funding of school districts. That likely means that the average per pupil expenditure in some of the Alliance districts might need to be 30% or 40% higher than the average per pupil expenditure in many other districts. See, in particular, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 20-6 by Professor Bo Zhao, https://www.bostonfed.org/publications/new-england-public-policy-center-research-report/2020/measuring-disparities-in-cost-and-spending-across-connecticut-school-districts.aspx. The proposal to hold all districts harmless from any reduction is ECS funding guarantees that no serious move towards equitable education funding would be forthcoming under the CAPSS proposal.
We are intrigued by the idea of adding student achievement into the ECS calculation formula but cannot really comment on a proposal so vague. Moreover, we are concerned that, like No Child Left Behind, use of performance data will tend to reward those districts that need the support the least. If the plan is written to fund the worst performing districts, however, it could create unintended incentives for poor education, a veritable race to the bottom.
We are concerned that CAPSS fails to provide a district-by-district analysis of the changes it proposes.
The goal set in the CAPSS paper is unduly modest. The only way to produce equitable and adequate funding for schools in Connecticut is to move incrementally to the elimination of the reliance on local property taxes to fund local educational costs. We should set year by year targets for funding, aiming at the complete elimination of local funding. Fifty-four years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court invalidated Connecticut's school funding scheme, saying, "The present-day problem arises from the circumstance that over the years there has arisen a great disparity in the ability of local communities to finance local education, which has given rise to a consequent significant disparity in the quality of education available to the youth of the state. It was well stated in the memorandum of decision of the trial court, which noted that the “present method (of financing education in the state) is the result of legislation in which the state delegates to municipalities of disparate financial capability the state’s duty of raising funds for operating public schools within that municipality. That legislation gives no consideration to the financial capability of the municipality to raise funds sufficient to discharge another duty delegated to the municipality by the state, that of educating the children within that municipality.'." Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615, 648 (Conn. 1977). CAPSS would do well to recognize the evils of local funding and make a proposal to move towards equitable funding.
4. Special Education
While we support lifting the $140 million cap on Excess Cost Grant funding, we are concerned with the distortions in decision-making occasioned by this grant. While it may be appropriate public policy to protect school districts from the unforeseen and enormous costs of an individual student, all special education costs money and should be supported by the State. The Excess Cost Grant discourages the creation of effective in-district programs and leads to more segregated placements. Further, under the present statutory scheme, there is no assurance that excess cost reimbursements go to the school district, as opposed to the town. Another approach to funding state funding of special education is needed. For example, schools throughout the state need to build capacity to meet the needs of students with anxiety, a history of trauma, or depression. State funding of social emotional learning personnel would be another way to fund special education. Subsuming state funding of special education into the general ECS grant fails to direct the money and fails to meet the need.
We oppose any efforts to centralize oversight of special education eligibility. Under the IDEA, eligibility decisions are left to the local IEP Team, relying on the law and consulting with guidance issued by the State. It is true that the proportion of students found eligible for special education and related services has been rising. That is a reflection of increased incidence of autism, anxiety disorders, and trauma, not some flaw in or abuse of the system. There exists no credible evidence of overidentification. The fact that the percentage of students deemed eligible is rising demonstrates a greater need for individualized services. Furthermore, in the area of learning disability, the use of research-based literacy instruction, instead of the discredited Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches, in early grades could obviate the need for special education later.
And, of course, we continue to oppose efforts by school superintendents to place the burden of proving that a school's proposed program for a special education student is not appropriate. That burden needs to remain with the school that proposed the program and that has the information and resources to prove its case. This CAPSS proposal, made in response to the Supreme Court decision in Schaffer v. Weast, 546 US 29 (2005), has failed to gain traction because the proponents have produced no evidence that keeping the burden of proof on school districts results in improper decisions or inappropriately raises costs on school districts. Shifting that burden to the parent when it is the school that creates the record, maintains the record, and has all the information and resources to prove its case fails to take into account that it is the school that has the affirmative obligation to provide FAPE. It should not be left to the parent to prove that the school did not do its job but rather it should be up to the school to prove that it did. Stronger accountability on the part of the school mitigates against potential harm to children, safeguards taxpayer funds, invites scrutiny, and promotes improvement. Accountability requires that there are appropriate sanctions for failure, especially when that failure impacts the most vulnerable in society. CAPSS weakens its credibility by continuing to beat this dead horse.
The CAPSS proposal also offers "an incentive system for students to be educated in town, in the region, and in the state." We are not certain what this means, but any artificial, geographic limitations on placement runs counter to the IDEA's requirement that students with disabilities be provided with a free appropriate public education. School districts should not have an incentive to deny a child an appropriate program and placement when there may be no local program that meetings the child's needs.
8. Early Childhood
We agree with the goal of 100% pre-school for all 3- and 4-year-old children, regardless of their residence. Early intervention will greatly reduce the need for special services once these children reach the elementary grades.
It is of note that the CAPSS proposal fails to mention Birth to Three. Connecticut's early childhood program reduces future special education costs by providing needed services to very young children. We should be expanding eligibility and expanding Birth to Three services and funding to ensure that there is no cost to parents, to reduce long-term educational and social service costs and to remediate disability when the child's brain is most malleable.
We generally agree with CAPSS stated goals concerning Attacking Structural Racism and Discrimination. We are concerned, however, that the specific recommendations are simply for examining disparities and developing a remedial plan. The data are already available.
For educational outcomes, the State collects data based on standardized testing, mostly the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Testing is conducted in the three areas of English Literacy, Math, and Science. In the 21 districts in which Black and Latinx students are in the majority ("MM districts"), the average literacy test score is 59.6. In the remaining 145 districts, the average is 72.2, or 21% higher. For math, the average score in the majority-minority districts is 54.1, while it is 68.1 in the remaining districts, which is 26% higher. The gap between the performance of high need students and non-high need students in literacy is 57% higher for the 21 MM districts than in the remaining 145 districts. The gap in math is 20% higher. Even the year-to-year growth is different. For literacy, the growth for non-high needs students is 12% lower for the MM districts. For math, the difference is 15%. In brief, students in minority districts perform more poorly and progress at a slower rate. High needs students in minority districts are particularly impacted.
The differences are even more dramatic for discipline. Last year 10.3% of Black students faced suspension, while only 2.9% of white students did. The prior year, 14% of Black students faced suspension, while only 4% of white students did. As the Commissioner reported to the State Board of Education in February 2020, " In three of four cases, Black/African American students were more likely to receive a more severe sanction (i.e., OSS or Expulsion) for similar behavior than both Hispanic/Latino and white students." For exclusionary discipline, that is out-of-school suspension and expulsion, the rate for the 21 MM districts was 12%, while it was 3% for the remaining 145 districts. In the 21 MM districts, 15% of students were chronically absent, while the number was 8% for the other 145 districts.
The huge differences in performance and in discipline between majority-minority districts and other districts are also present in the differences in performance and discipline between students with disabilities and those without.
The data is, frankly, jaw-dropping. We do not need to spend any more time admiring the problem. We need to take action now. Equitable funding is the most critical need. Banning exclusionary discipline and getting the police out of schools are two additional actions to end structural racism in Connecticut schools. If we are united in our desire to attack structural racism, we do not need another study. We need action.
11. Virtual Learning
Certainly, virtual learning is here to stay, even after the eventual control of COVID-19 results in students being brought back into the classroom. Yet, there are a number of concerns that have not been addressed. First, there are potentially serious psychological and physiological injuries that are resulting to our children due to excess time watching a computer screen. Compelling students to watch video screen for hours a day, under the rubric of distance learning, may be almost as harmful as having those children play Fortnight or Roblox for that same period of time. Frankly, we do not know. But we need to find out, through serious research, before we blindly sentence students to untold additional hours of screen time.
Second, many of the so-called free educational programs are of questionable value. There is no outfit that vets the software available, whether free or for a fee, to determine its pedagogic value. Many of the literacy programs focus entirely on comprehension, cannot address decoding, and miss the effects of dyslexia until far too late in the student's career. Many of the math programs are timed, creating math anxiety where none need exist. Sadly, we are diving into this area blind.
Third, there is no such thing as free software. The developers are providing it without charge to gather marketable information on the users. School systems have no right to sell a child's privacy rights in order to provide an education.
Fourth, much of the software available is culturally and racially insensitive. It is not true to the lived experience of children of color. Asking a student who grows up in urban poverty to write a paragraph based on a visual prompt of a child playing on the manicured lawn of her suburban house will not yield an accurate reflection of the urban child's skills and will further alienate the urban child from the educational endeavor.
Fifth, technology is simply inaccessible to children with significant disabilities or challenging home circumstances. Before using such technology, districts need to explore and demonstrate that they are able to effectively deliver instruction to students with high needs.
Much more work needs to be done in this area and we hope the Superintendents will take the lead in assuring the work is done.
12. Student Assessment
The COVID-19 pandemic, together with the failure of the federal government to adequately respond to it, has further widened persistent inequities in our education system, which has underserved students of color, Native students, English learners, immigrant students, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families for far too long. Estimates project massive learning loss for students of color and students from low-income families, as well as for students with disabilities and English learners, resulting from school building closures due to the pandemic. It is imperative that we have accurate information about how our students are performing so that resources can be directed to schools and students in need. The US Department of Education’s guidance appropriately calls upon states to implement federal equity guardrails established under the Education and Secondary Education Act while allowing time-limited flexibility, where necessary, for states to adapt accountability systems due to COVID-19. For the parents, families, and communities, the data from annual statewide assessments are an important source of information that tell them how well the education system is serving their children. The use of standardized tests has helped reveal longstanding achievement gaps and racial disparities in academic opportunity and provided the evidence used by civil rights groups to advocate for change. Systems of accountability in education serve as a critical tool to ensuring the most vulnerable students and schools receive the support and resources they need to succeed.
Indeed, there has yet to be any systematic findings regarding the educational loss for students during the COVID-19 shutdown. The paucity of data is even more acute for students with disabilities who cannot take standardized assessments. Proposals to reduce testing during the current school year are misplaced and have a disproportionately adverse impact on students of color, students with disability, English learners, and students from poverty. Especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19, there is no justification for eliminating testing in grades 4, 6 and 8. Such proposals need to be withdrawn.
13. State Leadership
The Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) fancies itself as a management consultant to school districts. Yet, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) require the State to guarantee compliance by local school districts with federal law requirements. Our own state constitution puts the burden on the state, i.e. CSDE, to perform that role. We daily experience significant IDEA violations by local school districts. CSDE refuses to investigate and refuses to take action, such as withholding federal funds, to stop these violations. This needs to change. CSDE needs to start enforcing the law so that students with disabilities receive the education to which they are entitled. First and foremost, CSDE needs to be a compliance agency.
The Legislature has an important role here. The Legislature needs to demand a fundamental shift in focus by the State Department of Education. And the Legislature needs to hold the Department accountable, while providing it with the necessary compliance and investigative staff to do the job.
14. Student Well Being
We cannot have effective social-emotional learning is an atmosphere of fear, in an ethos of rejection, in a school acting like a law enforcement agency. Yet, in our effort to make schools safe, we have made them appear less safe. In our striving to minimize disruptions to learning, schools have become fundamentally disruptive. In our desire to end racism, schools have become a mechanism to preserve the caste system in America.
We change this in three ways. First, by getting uniformed, armed police officers out of schools. School resource officers are, at their base, emblems of power. Their uniforms, their weapons, their power of arrest all broadcast that they are there to maintain authority by instilling fear. The data are clear that school-based arrests escalate when SROs are in schools. Certainly, many students gravitate to the SRO.
But, many students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities, have histories with police that lead them to be traumatized when in their presence. The damage done to these students by having police in schools is severe. Keeping SROs in the school denigrates the lived experience of people of color. Black people are at least three times more likely than white people to be killed during an encounter with the police. At least every week, an African American is killed by a white police officer. The police are not seen as protectors of the community, but rather as oppressors. SROs can trigger past trauma. The benefit of having SROs in school is minimal. The cost is high. See, for example, The Children's Partnership's report on "Policing and Its Harmful Impacts on Child Wellbeing" https://www.childrenspartnership.org/ research/policing-and-its-harmful-impacts-on-child-wellbeing/; Gottfredson, et. al, "Effects of School Resource Offices on School Crime and Responses to School Crime" in Criminology and Public Policy, July 2020, at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1745-9133.12512; Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance's Report "Ending the Criminalization of Youth: One Investment at a Time", at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/ 5b8413b445776e48dcfec417/t/5ef33ed080c2046beb6c0723/1592999680513/VSP++Ending+the+Criminalization+of+Youth%2C+One+Investment+at+a+Time.pdf.
Second, we need to end exclusionary discipline, that is, expulsions and out-of-school suspensions. Certainly, there are students who need to be removed temporarily from the general education classroom to permit other students to learn. By and large, these students do not feel like they belong. They feel alienated, powerless, alone, and out-of-control. By throwing them out of school, we are reinforcing that alienation and powerlessness. We are telling them that they are unworthy. It is hard to imagine a more egregious mechanism of caste system enforcement.
There are certainly students who do not fit easily into the routinized structure of public school. Instead of discarding these students through school-based arrests and throwing them out of school or terrorizing them by having a uniformed officer wandering the halls, we have the obligation, indeed the opportunity, to work with them, to serve their needs, and maybe to support them in making real progress.
Third, we need to ban school-based arrests for anything other than serious felonies. Indeed, violations of student handbook should not be the subject of police referrals or of exclusion from school. This includes behaviors such as violation of the dress codes, disruptive behavior, obscene language, insubordination, lying, refusing to identify him/herself to an adult, refusal to obey an adult, engaging in a walk-out or sit-in, possession of tobacco, use of phone, accumulation of class tardies, failure to attend, and throwing snowballs unless specifically authorized by school staff, all of which have been the subject of such referrals.
The critical element of all of these proposals is the creation of comprehensive clinical settings in each school. Such a setting would have strong special education aimed at challenging students to manifest their gifts, intense counseling and psychological support, family involvement and education, a variety of related services, and ample opportunities for physical activity. Some schools have settings like this, but most do not. Indeed, it is a central tenet of IDEA that school districts have a continuum of placement options available to serve the varied needs of students, within its own neighborhood schools. Students who would otherwise be suspended or expelled or arrested would be placed in such a setting and carefully evaluated. They would then have goals set, in consultation with parents, and would remain in the setting until they master their goals, with provision for gradual reentry into the general education setting.
There is no doubt that this is an expensive proposal. We would, therefore, recommend that we start it as a pilot program in a few school districts, to permit an effective design of the therapeutic interventions, to prove the concept, and to better assess the overall costs of such a program. We would want to target districts like Waterbury to be in the pilot program.
15. Disengaged and Disenfranchised Youth
The CAPSS proposal gives short shrift to this critical issue. School administrators, together with students, parents, and other stakeholders need to revamp the educational experience to make school the place that kids want to be. Because of the rule-based, compliance-oriented, consequence-imposing nature of most public schools, the public school often becomes a place of fear and distrust and pain. We cannot bring disengaged students back to school by compulsion and threat and force. Covid-19 has exacerbated the disconnection of our kids who need support the most. Unfortunately, many districts have not had the resources to sufficiently or supportively reach out to students who have not been in remote or in-person class consistently. We need to bring them into school by making school the place they want to be. This is a major challenge that needs to be addressed.
17. Federal Funds
We are in complete agreement with the need for the federal government to provide 40% of the funding of special education, as President Biden has committed to doing. The CAPSS document wrongly claims that the federal share is now 6%. In fact, it is closer to 14%, but nowhere near the 40% committed to during the enactment of the IDEA.
19. Debt and Obligations
Significant distortions occur because school districts are on one year funding. Either school districts spend their allocations in the fiscal year, or they lose the money and face smaller budgets in the future. Many states have provision for the carry-over of unspent funds from one year to the next, or for the obligation of future year funds if needed in the current year. Such a change would alleviate many of the budgeting problems now faced by public schools.
23. Regional Efficiencies
We do not need a new task force. We need the political will to regionalize schools, particularly in a period of declining enrollment. We all know that those in the wealthier suburbs are resistant to the idea of having their children educated with urban children. We need to overcome this caste perpetuating view. It is appalling to see the differing conditions between Weaver High School in Hartford and Hall High School 2.25 miles away in West Hartford. It is revolting to see the difference between Bassick High School in Bridgeport and Warde High School 2 miles away in Fairfield. At the same time, we see enormous wasted resources as tiny neighboring towns like Hampton, Brooklyn, Canterbury and Scotland all attempt to deliver the array of services required by the IDEA. Connecticut has over 210 school districts. For a state the size of Connecticut, this level of fragmentation is inefficient, inoperable, and unsustainable.
24. Mandate Waivers
The CAPSS proposal is vague and risks misuse. State mandates come in a variety of forms. Many exist to promote transparency and accountability of school districts to the public. Some are enacted to comply with federal funding laws. Giving the Commissioner of Education the unilateral authority to waive requirements imposed by the Legislature is fundamentally anti-democratic.
The law on the role of local school boards and the rules of practice are vague and unenforceable. We have seen local school boards get involved in special education issues that are beyond their authority, competence, or understanding. At the same time, we have seen local boards of education back up superintendents engaged in improper actions or unduly punitive measures. Local school boards are all too often rubber stamps for decisions of Superintendents to expel a child. We need new laws clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of local board of education.
27. Public School Choice
We endorse the proposal that student population in school choice programs should mirror the population. This requirement needs to be applied to the schools of the Connecticut Technical High School system. For too long, the technical high schools have used the statute to overtly discriminate against students with disabilities.
The CAPSS proposal fails to address one of the state’s most pressing problems—our failure to teach approximately 50% of our students to read proficiently by the end of third grade. Students who struggle with reading in first grade are likely to continue to struggle throughout their school careers and are at high risk for dropping out of school, are more likely to experience exclusionary discipline, are at high risk for involvement with the criminal justice system and are at high risk for depression and even suicide. And yet research indicates that, when provided appropriate instruction, 95-98% of students are capable of learning to read proficiently by the end of third grade. In contrast, even many of the most highly performing school districts fail to teach 20-30% of their students to read proficiently.
This failure is completely unnecessary. Literacy is an area in which there is more than half a century of scholarly work, providing us with a road map for what is effective. State funding of literacy education, validated by peer-reviewed research, and adequate training for school staff, to include supervised practicum would go a long way to meeting the educational needs of all children, including those with disabilities. According to research, “adequate training” can take two years or more, which causes many districts to balk and try to take less costly and ineffective paths to preparing teachers to provide reading instruction. However, if our schools do nothing else, we have a practical and moral responsibility to teach our children to read. In addition to the severe negative consequences to children, our failure has resulted in districts unnecessarily spending millions of dollars to private schools that specialize in remediating dyslexia. To support these efforts, our schools of higher education must begin to incorporate this rigorous training into curriculum for all elementary school teachers, special education teachers, and literacy specialists. To date, these professionals, including literacy specialists, often graduate without any significant training in the science of reading.
Once again, we repeat our desire to work with you to improve public education in Connecticut. Our goals are closely aligned and our differences in means have to do more with urgency. We commend you for kicking off this process.