Eliminating Education Gaps by Improving All Schools

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To the Editor:

Connecticut is home to one of the largest gaps in educational outcomes between high- and low-income families. The difference is stark, and it exists throughout our public school system. There is a proposed reform which could help narrow that gap by improving outcomes for all students, especially those from low-income families.

The Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee will have a hearing on Wednesday, March 6, to consider House Bill 5101 and listen to members of the public. This legislation would create a new K-12 scholarship program by providing tax credits to anyone who donates to scholarship-granting organizations. These scholarships help families gain access to educational opportunities that are currently out of their reach financially.

This legislation has the potential to help over 150,000 children in Connecticut whose families currently have income levels at or below 250% of federal poverty guidelines. There are programs like this in nearly two dozen states, and 325,168 students were utilizing these scholarships across the country in 2022.

These scholarships are making a real difference in the development of young minds today and improving outcomes for all communities well into the future. There is also immense demand for them in Connecticut.

Connecticut’s only state-wide scholarship granting organization, the Connecticut Center for Educational Excellence, opened its doors last year and received almost 900 applications from families across nearly half of Connecticut’s municipalities — all within the first couple months of scholarships being made available. And demand is only increasing.

We have long accepted that a gap between high- and low-income families’ educational outcomes is a given. If you attend a local Board of Education meeting you are likely to hear how socioeconomic demographics explain why schools are not improving and why the town needs to spend more tax dollars to make improvements. We should stop accepting these points at face value, and we can turn to success stories from the likes of Marva Collins to help explain why.

Marva Collins was an educator at a local public school in a poor community in Chicago. Dissatisfied with the education system that had been built up around her, she left to start her own independent school. The story that follows sounds like something out of a movie – it was even made into one — but it shouldn’t be. It could, and should, be our baseline expectation.

With her own money, Ms. Collins opened a school in her own home and called it Westside Preparatory School. She started with just a handful of students, but after word spread about what she was doing, families were knocking on her door to let their children in.

Eventually, the school size outgrew her home, so she converted some office space a few blocks away so she could educate hundreds of students. The school shone as a beacon of opportunity in a community plagued by crime, drugs, and failing institutions. Amidst all that chaos, gangs, and poverty her students excelled.

Many of her students were considered “unteachable” by officials in the public school system. Yet after entering Ms. Collins’ classroom, students could quote Shakespeare and Chaucer. One student had attended 14 other schools and was told by all of them that she could not learn; however, Ms. Collins told her “Welcome to success. Say goodbye to failure. You are here to stay. You are going to learn.”

60 Minutes interviewed Ms. Collins’ students years after they attended Westside Preparatory School in a “where they are now” segment. One student, who was described as “retarded” before entering Ms. Collins’ classroom, had gone on to graduate from college summa cum laude and had plans to open a homeless shelter. There were business owners, teachers, an Air Force staff sergeant, a law student, and much more. Every story a success.

Passing a tax-credit scholarship program here in Connecticut will help make more stories like those connected to Ms. Collins a reality. It will help make more dreams come true.

— 

Bryce N.Y. Chinault is director of external affairs for the Yankee Institute