A (Still) Failing Grade for Hartford Schools
By Brian S. Brown
Family Institute of Connecticut

Hartford’s is not the only failing school system in Connecticut, but it does seem to be alone in dressing this failure up as success. At the brink of collapse in the mid-1990s, Hartford schools were taken over by the state in 1997 in an unprecedented move to avoid complete collapse. In the debate over the state takeover, Connecticut’s leaders spoke of the simple need for proper accountability, good administration, and improved test scores.

Since that time there have been some improvements. Superintendent Anthony Amato has made sure that buildings are no longer collapsing, that administrators have to live up to minimum standards of competence, and that teachers are paid some of the highest salaries in the country. Still, fulfilling these functions is far from creating a “model for improving poor-performing schools”— as the American Federation of Teachers recently termed Hartford. (Hartford Courant, March 5, 2001, “Hartford Schools Assume Stature of Role Model”).

The school board’s handling of the recent resolution to distribute free condoms highlights the continuing lack of accountability in Hartford’s schools. Free from the fear of the ballot box, the state appointed school board goes about making decisions with oligarchic impunity. When opponents of Hartford’s ill-conceived contraceptive distribution program filled the Moylan School in August, they were barely given a hearing. Opposition speakers including Dr. Marie Hilliard of the Catholic Conference, myself, and a number of concerned parents and local citizens, were given a total of two-minutes apiece with only 10 minutes total to air concerns.

Following the meeting, board chairman and former House Speaker Thomas Ritter waved off supporters of an abstinence-only curriculum with a simple, if unintelligible answer: “We are supporting abstinence, we’re just supporting condom distribution too.” If this is the logic of the leader of the state board, we have a worrisome clue about what is going on in Hartford’s classrooms.

Lack of accountability usually goes hand-in-hand with misadministration and here Hartford’s school board again fits the failing bill. In August parents were promised that any contraceptive plan would allow them to opt their children out if they so desired. Though this was not in the wording of the original resolution, most parents took the board’s word for it.

Now that the school system is scrambling to implement the condom distribution program, however, it is saying that an opt-out program might “go against the children’s rights.” As of Oct. 31 — almost four months after the original decision — the Hartford school system cannot even give an accurate assessment of when condoms will begin to be distributed, let alone what restrictions will be in place.

If we turn to what the students should be learning, rather than what they should not, the outlook is equally bleak. When only 13 percent of Hartford’s eighth graders can pass the basic requirements of the Connecticut Mastery Test, we are a long way from calling Hartford’s school system a success.

Further, what little verifiable improvement there is in test evaluations may soon be a thing of the past. The Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) is being assailed by a teacher’s union embarrassed by the dire performance of the areas with the strongest union presence: cities like Hartford. Complaining of the dampening effects of the CMT on classroom “creativity” and “expression,” union representatives really seem to be up in arms over the fact that teachers, students, and school districts can now be measured by some standard.

Lack of accountability, misadministration, and attempts to remove what little independent monitoring is present — with such entrenched problems it is no wonder that Hartford schools remain some of the poorest performing in the state. What is amazing is that the state board of trustees continues to devote time and energy to such issues as comprehensive sex-education, when the schools are failing to teach such simple things as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Call me old-fashioned, but aren’t these the essentials for a passing grade?

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