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Opinion: More teachers, librarians would help kids more than innovation

Fatima Rojas (center) and Sarah Miller (right) speak at a New Haven Board of Education meeting. (Christopher Peak / New Haven Independent)

Last Friday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced a $100 million donation to the state of Connecticut from the Dalio Philanthropies “to strengthen public education and promote greater economic opportunity.” The five year initiative is to be matched two-to-one by the state and unspecified private donors, with state funds this year coming from surplus dollars.

On its surface, this sounds like good news. The New Haven Public Schools face a staggering $30 million deficit. Our children, ages 4, 8, 9, and 11, attend Columbus Family Academy and the Engineering Science University Magnet School.

We love our schools. But like so many other schools across the state, particularly in urban areas, they face chronic underfunding and ongoing loss of services: cuts to guidance, library, field trips, and planned cuts inevitably affecting class size. Our public schools simply don’t have enough teachers, teacher aides, librarians, counselors, nurses, or social workers to serve all of our kids, especially those navigating poverty and trauma. With 26 kids per class, even the most skilled teacher is challenged to provide the individualized attention that every child needs and deserves.

Inadequate funding is only part of the reason our schools don’t have what they need. Another major problem is how we distribute public dollars. Gov. Lamont’s budget disappointingly decreases Education Cost Sharing, the main source of unrestricted state funding for core classroom needs, like teachers and counselors. At the same time, it increases Alliance District funds, a restricted pool for “pursuing bold and innovative reforms” grounded in corporate-inspired ideas for how to improve education, which are often painfully disconnected from actual classroom needs.

For example: the New Haven Public Schools just spent $132,000 on an outside contractor to conduct a curriculum audit, shortly after laying off counselors and librarians. Since New Haven’s tax base can’t take much more and Alliance funds can’t be used to meet day-to-day classroom needs, those needs simply remain unmet, shortchanging our kids year after year.

Private philanthropy to the rescue? It hasn’t worked out that way in New Haven, so far, particularly when it comes to the Dalio Philanthropies. Their most prominent footprint here is CT RISE, a program centered on a “data dashboard” for teachers, which aggregates student data such as grades, test scores, attendance data, course credits, and behaviors.

While the program provides some potential benefits, including streamlined access to student data and supports for students and teachers, there are major downsides. According to educators using the dashboard, it serves as a distraction from teaching and learning, undermines human connection and understanding, and raises significant data privacy concerns — all without any demonstrated improvement in student learning. Following numerous concerns from educators, the NHPS Advocates network compiled this report that summarizes preliminary findings.

Click here to download a copy of the report.

We don’t question the Dalios’ good intentions. The Dalio Philanthropies also contributes to a number of worthwhile endeavors in New Haven including, most recently, nearly a million dollars for full-time mental health clinicians from Clifford Beers at five public schools. But their track record is dominated by major, long-term investments in charter school networks, corporate “education reform” efforts that give control of public entities to private interests, and the school privatization movement more broadly. We the people should know better than to give the proponents of CT RISE disproportionate influence over state education policy.

This “gift” to the state should have been public money all along. Bridgewater Associates received a $22 million grant from Connecticut taxpayers to facilitate its expansion in 2016. This followed a subsidy of $52 million in 2015. Bridgewater and Mr. Dalio also benefit from the state’s “carried interest loophole” that allows hedge-fund income to be taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income and thus deprive Connecticut of millions of dollars that could be used to support public education. Last year alone, according to the Connecticut Post, Mr. Dalio’s tax bill on earned income — without the loophole — would have been $139.8 million.

So the gift effectively returns public dollars. But rather than increase the pool of resources for all, it comes with conditions that seem deaf to the actual needs of children in schools.

Primacy is given to the Dalio donation and initiative, rather than the state’s moral responsibility to provide foundational, equitable, quality learning experiences for every child. And it comes at a significant cost: $100 million of the state’s own public dollars, which could resolve New Haven’s deficit, return our counselors, and reduce class sizes, are suddenly reserved for a vaguely-defined “partnership” and new bureaucracy to “leverage” and “administer.” Given the poor track record of mega-philanthropy in education, from the Gates Foundation’s unsuccessful “experiments” to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million disruption in Newark, we have every reason to take serious pause before this plan takes further shape.

Decades of research show us what works in public education. There is no secret sauce. It’s complex, difficult work; but it is not mysterious or particularly in need of innovation. There is no experimentation on children in Connecticut’s wealthy, white suburban communities or in the much-lauded classrooms of Finland. If the Dalios want what’s best for all kids, they could set a new bar for those at the high end of the wealth gap in Connecticut by annually paying their real proportional fair share — and do so publicly, in order to encourage others to find their moral centers, too.

These funds could in turn give our kids what they actually need: teachers, teacher aides, librarians, counselors, nurses, social workers, quality materials and supplies, child-centered programs in all disciplines, “extras” like arts and languages, individualized support services, and smaller class sizes.

 

Sarah Miller and Fátima Rojas are organizers with New Haven Public School Advocates.  This op-ed first appeared on CTViewpoints.org.

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