OP-ED | Lamont and Stefanowski Must Address the Real Education Issues

Classroom. Education concept.
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Barth Keck

In Guilford, a group of parents recently sued the local school district over alleged improprieties resulting from the alleged teaching of Critical Race Theory. In Greenwich, Project Veritas recently posted a video of a school administrator making prejudicial comments about Roman Catholics that allegedly proves schools indoctrinate students with progressive ideology. Based on the widespread press such events receive, you’d think the most glaring problem with Connecticut’s schools is their hyper-focus on “wokeness,” including the promotion of reverse racism, Marxism, and transgenderism.

As Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski posted two weeks ago on social media, “Woke teachers think they know what’s best for your children and don’t want you involved.” To be fair, that post was subsequently removed. Still, Stefanowski has clearly entered the culture wars as demonstrated by the “Parental Bill of Rights” on his website.

Pardon my dispassion, but as someone who’s taught in Connecticut for three decades, I fail to see cultural conflicts as the most serious issue facing the state’s schools. If the next governor is sincerely interested in the education of all public-school students, he would do well to pay attention to two basic problems: the achievement gap and the teacher shortage.

Connecticut is a “tale of two states” when it comes to education. An achievement gap exists between racial groups as well as between high needs and non-high needs students, a gap that increased during the pandemic.

Stefanowski’s apparent solution, as outlined in the Parental Bill of Rights, is expanding school-choice programs: “Parents should have options to choose the best education for their children, and no child should have their educational opportunity limited by their zip code. We support funding for public education and believe every child should have the opportunity for a top-rate education in our state.”

Stefanowski briefly mentions vouchers and educational savings accounts for “children trapped in underperforming public school systems,” but adds no details, such as how to fund them.

For his part, Ned Lamont has been a proponent of the Open Choice program, which, along with magnet-school seats, was expanded in January through a settlement of the long-running Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case. That said, school-equity advocates remained critical of Lamont’s budget proposal for 2022, even as it increased Education Cost Sharing by $40 million.

“There is a severe racial funding gap in Connecticut schools, and the consequences of this gap have only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Daniel Pearson, state director of Educators for Excellence-Connecticut. “We are disappointed to see that Governor Lamont’s proposed budget does not do enough to mitigate these issues.”

“School choice” sounds nice, but will either candidate be able to convince school districts to open up schools to children outside of their district?

In February, for instance, five of the six Republican members of the nine-member Darien school board carried a vote that rejected a plan to participate in Open Choice. “The program, designed to deal with the issue of racial and economic disparities between city and suburban schools, would have allowed up to 16 kindergartners from Norwalk to attend Darien elementary schools in the fall,” reported NBC-Connecticut.

As attractive as school choice sounds, it’s a moot point if schools can’t hire enough teachers. This school year began with a statewide shortage of as many as 1,600 teachers, and New Haven schools reported just last week that it remains 70 to 80 teachers short of a full staff. 

To address this shortage, Stefanowski prefers a free-market approach.

“If we have to pay teachers more to get good teachers, we should be doing it,” he said in an interview on Connecticut Public Radio. “If there’s not enough teachers, that means there’s a reason for that. Either it’s a lack of respect, or a lack of pay, or, I’ll even say it, a lack of a good pension program.”

Last month, Stefanowski said he would “use some of the $5 billion state budget surplus to help fill the gaps [created by the shortage],” according to WTNH.

He did not make clear exactly how that might work in a state where teacher contracts are negotiated and funded principally at the local level.

Lamont, meanwhile, is taking a longer-term view of the teacher shortage, earmarking funds for teacher-preparation programs. In July, the governor announced “new investments to defray certification-related testing costs for aspiring educators in Connecticut.”

“A total of $2 million dollars of federal, state-level reserve American Rescue Plan Act, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP-ESSER) funding is being dedicated over a two-year period, which includes $750,000 in year one and $750,000 in year two,” according to a press release from the governor.

If such forward-thinking policies had been in place previously, we might not face the current teacher shortage. Of course, such thinking requires politicians to avoid emotional catchphrases and instead focus on real policy solutions to real education problems. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

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