When equal isn’t equitable

Budget season is upon us and as a first time board of education member, it has a different meaning this year. As a consultant, I often deal with the aftermath of city or state negotiations. As a taxpayer, I pay the bill, sometimes disagreeing with how effectively some of those dollars are spent. Now, as a consultant, taxpayer, board of education member, and a mother – the discussions and negotiations have a whole new impact.

(Heads up for Norwalkers reading this – I will not discuss politics, the “he said, she said,” or the blame game that is so easy to get into. This piece is about the higher level realities of the term equity and what a budget represents.)

The Background: Like many states, Connecticut is not in a great financial situation – revenue is stalled or is declining, contractual obligations are rising, and costs for everything continue to increase. In Norwalk, which lies along the “Gold Coast,” essentially the far-reaching suburbs of New York City, we receive a disproportionately low share of the state’s education cost sharing formula (long story about the history of ECS and how high real estate prices make it seem that our community has more wealth than it actually does). The city and the state have underfunded the school district for decades.

The school system is finally on a successful trajectory, there is a Strategic Operating Plan (SOP) guiding the work of the district, a Superintendent and Board of Education that believe in and are actively working to fix many of the structural systemic legacy issues, while also moving the district forward to increase college and career readiness for all students. The results of the first few years of SOP implementation have been profound. The district jumped to the top of its district reference group (comparing “like” districts), and the new state accountability metrics, which value student growth, demonstrate major improvements.

Then, budget season comes around. Without going into the nitty gritty of politics (which don’t really matter for the point of this piece, and noting that similar situations occur across the country every year), the bottom line is that the district’s original budget request will not be fully funded. There is a desire to limit tax increases (legitimately so), tax payers want to limit spending while also wanting more and better services, increasing unfunded state and federal mandates cost more each year, and limited state grants add to the complexity of the situation. The result will be the delayed implementation of many of the SOP initiatives, along with some major reductions to current district spending as well – which will include removing staff and cutting programs – when combined, will inevitably impact academic growth and social-emotional learning. Which, eventually impacts property values and the cycle continues…

Is equity equal? In this city, we often compare our per pupil costs to our neighbors – all of whom spend more than us. While I fully support the sentiment of this approach, it is not the entire story. We not only compete with surrounding towns that fund more per student for staff and for families, but we also have a student population that costs more to educate. We have higher rates of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced price meals (approx 50%), and students that require special education services than many of our competing neighbors. This valuable diversity is a huge advantage to our city and the very reason that many families (including mine) move here in the first place, but it does come with a cost. Our assets increase our liabilities. It is our reality.

Nationally, we talk a lot about equity. But, what does equity mean? Equity does not mean equal resources. Equity is more about the outcomes of those resources. When two students start in different places, they may require different resources to achieve the same outcome. Equal funding for Norwalk students does not necessarily equate to equitable educational opportunities.

A Budget’s Significance: I first heard the statement “a budget is a moral document” when I was in graduate school studying public administration. I don’t know who first stated it, as it’s been attributed to many politicians and community activists (including MLK Jr), but that mindset has stuck with me. A budget truly is a moral document. Where we put our resources demonstrates our priorities. Our priorities should reflect our needs (hat tips to good data collection and root cause analysis to determine those needs!) and the values of our community.

Should we throw money around? Absolutely not. I have seen millions of dollars of federal funds used ineffectively in the school improvement world (often due to lack of fidelity of implementation, lack of alignment between programs and needs, lack of monitoring, and the absence of performance contracting). More money does not necessarily fix a problem. Money that is used efficiently and effectively to target improving systems and structures, and provides appropriate supports to students (and staff) does transform the educational opportunities for students.

Takeaways: There are few easy solutions here and my city is not isolated in this struggle. I see similar scenarios play out across the country. That said, this district has made tremendous growth in just a few short years and I hope that we can continue to value and support that growth. Aside from local politics and the cuts that my fellow board members and will have to make over the next few months, my lasting takeaways include: 1) budgets are moral documents that represent our values and priorities, and 2) equal does not always mean equitable.

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