With the safe reopening of schools on everyone’s mind, it is critical that we as a community examine Danbury’s public education in its entirety. Our schools have suffered from chronic underfunding by city leaders. Despite higher state funding per student than peer districts such as Norwalk or Stamford, Danbury spends a third less per pupil from municipal funds.
Years of neglect have left our schools in a precarious position, with widening disparities and an urgent need to expand facilities, with nowhere near the funding to do so.
There are no shortcuts that will solve these problems. Some claim a charter school is a magic bullet. This is not accurate. A charter school would drain much-needed funds from our school budget. Danbury schools would lose state funding for students enrolled in the charter, but still have financial responsibility for many of the charter’s operational costs, like buses, school nurses, cafeteria workers. A charter school would intensify our existing problems and would only be available to a small and select number of Danbury’s students.
We need solid, stable local and state funding of our public schools, not private donations subject to the whims and restrictions of the donors, regardless of their good intentions. And when Connecticut charter schools have closed their doors, the public schools were strained with unanticipated costs associated with returning students.
A plan to address the challenges faced by Danbury schools must be guided by equity, responsibility and transparency.
Our top priority should be to ensure equitable opportunity. We must strive to reduce disparities and improve test scores, graduation rates, and college readiness among all students. To be truly equitable, we must commit to inclusive, multicultural programs. This includes hiring teachers of color and opportunities to ensure that non-English speaking students learn and thrive.
The plan must be responsible. Because Danbury is a great place to live and raise a family, student enrollment is growing at a faster rate than any other school system in our state. Accommodating more students requires new schools.
The proposal for a new public middle and high school — the Danbury Career Academy — has great potential. It would add enough physical space to accommodate 1,400 students. Academically, it would give students a choice, much like West Side Academy, adding specialization areas with career pathways.
The state will substantially reimburse Danbury for construction costs. But until we show a clear commitment to fund our schools locally there will be no additional state per pupil funding. Under current city leadership Danbury has fallen to 169 out of 169 Connecticut municipalities in per pupil spending. We can’t pretend that we can offer the same opportunities to our children as students in other districts while spending the least amount of money per pupil in our state.
Our public schools are the only way to ensure accountability and transparency, and real progress for all of our children not just some. Our community elects the school board. Our schools rely on parent participation, community engagement and oversight by elected officials. Board of Education meetings are open to the public, recorded and televised. Every contract for employees, consultants and contractors is transparent and available to the public. A charter school is not held to these standards. Decisions are made by appointed directors, behind closed doors and not subject to public review.
My vision is to take the best of our schools, like the West Side Academy, and implement this model throughout our school system. We need technology exposure in the early grades and must continue this investment through the upper grades. Today, ESL students are segregated in classrooms and social interactions. We can turn challenges like this into opportunities with fresh ideas, such as an option to attend a dual language school, creating a fully integrated learning experience for English and Spanish speaking students.
We face an urgent need for new investments and a new vision for our schools. I firmly believe that the best way to address these challenges is by renewing our commitment: Danbury Public Schools must provide equitable opportunity for all children regardless of race, place of origin, gender or income, both to ensure they can thrive and prosper as adults, and become engaged, informed citizens. A student in Danbury shouldn’t have to “hit the lottery” to be a winner when it comes to education.
State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-24th, serves the towns of Sherman, New Fairfield, Bethel and Danbury.