POWELL: Will the bonanza for schools ever cause students to learn?

Published on Friday, 19 March 2021 21:14
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By CHRIS POWELL

As hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants rain down on Connecticut's schools, a potentially decisive experiment in education is beginning. Bright markers should be placed on the current measures of every school system's performance and revisited often from now on to determine if the money makes any difference.

The Hartford and Bridgeport school systems, whose impoverished and fatherless students perform terribly, are to get about $130 million each. This will enable an increase in their per-pupil spending of 40 percent if the money is spent in one year, or an increase of 10 percent if spent over four years. Other poor-performing school systems with impoverished and fatherless students, those in New Haven and Waterbury, will get around $95 million each. Nearly all Connecticut school systems will get large amounts.

Apart from remedial classes to make up for the schooling missed because of the epidemic over the last year, school administrations may have to think hard about what to do with the money. The easiest decision for them will be to do what they have done with budget increases for decades: increase staff compensation, though this never improves student performance.

Congress and President Biden have offered no ideas as to how schools should spend the money, as the legislation provides no instructions. If Congress and the president meant the money mainly as a reward to the teacher unions for their support for the Democratic Party, the legislation would not have had to be written differently.

Maybe school systems at least will hold hearings to gather the public's suggestions for the money. But the legislation appears to prohibit using it to shore up underfunded pension systems or to cut taxes. The legislation wants the money spent, though using it to cut taxes might have the same effect, since then taxpayers would have more of their own money to spend. Indeed, since most property tax revenue in Connecticut is spent on schools and the property tax is considered most burdensome on the poor, cutting property taxes might be the best thing to do.

In any case, everyone should watch closely to see whether the federal bonanza improves student performance. If it doesn't - as the great increases in school spending in Connecticut during the last four decades have failed to improve it - maybe school spending increases at last can be acknowledged as political payoffs to the teacher unions.

JUST PLAIN INDIANS

With better timing Connecticut's Schaghticoke Indian tribe might have become the richest tribe in the country. For almost 300 years the tribe has had formal recognition by state government and a reservation out in the woods of Kent, though state government repeatedly allowed the reservation to be chipped away to a fraction of its original size.

But because of internal rivalries the Schaghticokes stumbled for many years in their pursuit of federal recognition, the prerequisite for the Indian casino business, which the tribe wanted to enter. By the time the U.S. Interior Department recognized the Schaghticokes, in 2004, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes already had recognition and were operating casinos, and state officials and the Pequots and Mohegans didn't want any more. The Interior Department was pressed to reverse itself, which it did in 2005, disregarding the merits of the Schaghticoke claim.

An advocate for the Schaghticokes says that if the tribe was authorized to operate a casino, it could give state government a much better deal than it has with the Pequots and Mohegans. But then any casino operator could give the state a better deal, for Connecticut doesn't need Indians to operate casinos.

And even if a much better deal was available, state government could never accept it, since the two casino tribes have become so rich and so influential in state politics that they can prevent competition forever.

It doesn't matter that the Schaghticokes may have a superior claim to historical continuity and thus to recognition. It's too late. All the necessary money has been lined up along with the politicians, and the Schaghticokes are on the wrong side of it.

They will have to content themselves with their last few acres of forest and with being just plain Indians. At least they may be sincere ones - Indians even though they never will have a casino.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.



Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns, Editorials on Friday, 19 March 2021 21:14. Updated: Friday, 19 March 2021 21:16.