Connecticut has long been known as having some of the best public schools in the nation, and it’s a legitimate point of pride. People who live in and move to this state know they’ll have a chance to see their children well-prepared for life after graduation, whether in college or in the workforce. It costs a lot to live in Connecticut, but a great public school system is one of the benefits.
More evidence of that arrived last week in the form of the Next Generation Accountability indexes, which show a rise in the number of students improving their math and reading performance. There are also more students taking more college-level courses, graduating on schedule and taking an art course before they leave high school — all signs of a system on the upswing.
Of course, along with the plaudits come the caveats. Connecticut’s is also a deeply unequal education system, where well-off suburbs boast off-the-charts scores even as cities struggle. Funding remains a challenge, and the achievement gap between children of rich and poor parents and between children of different races remains a huge problem. No one should gloss over those facts.
Even there, however, signs of improvement were clear in the new numbers. The index combines 12 measures and judges them against goals set by the state, and a number of schools from what are called Alliance Districts, where needs are highest, showed some of the best improvement. Schools of Distinction were found in towns and cities, with students rich and poor.
School reform was a major priority of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and his successor, Ned Lamont, has not pursued a similar set of goals to this point. But he does have wide-ranging plans to reorganize the state school system, including a proposal to strongly encourage regionalization among smaller districts. “Small local school districts that choose to have inefficient governance structures and too many expensive superintendents can no longer expect the state to bear the costs of these decisions,” Lamont’s budget says.
That’s tough language. But schools are expensive, the state is in a long-term budget crunch and difficult measures are necessary. Combining back-office functions and administrations among smaller districts may be a way to save money in a state that is often loath to undertake regionalization without significant prodding.
But it also hides a more important reality — the goal of government reforms needs to be to make schools better, not cheaper. The state needs to save money, but it can’t be at the cost of quality education in the classroom, and whatever steps are undertaken need to keep that foremost in mind.
There is conflicting data as to whether larger or smaller districts are better for students. This is not a decision the Legislature should rush into.
So much more needs to be done to improve Connecticut public schools, and to keep them at the level people have come to expect. Saving money is necessary, but quality education comes first.