Sunday, December 27, 2009

Schools and Prosperity

Over the years, I've been involved in numerous discussions about how to improve Waterbury, how to make the town more prosperous and a desirable place to live. At the moment, I am visiting family in Manhattan Beach, California (Los Angeles). When they bought their house here 20-some years ago, it was a very small, single-story home without basement, attic or garage. Every other house in town was the same, and they were all very affordable.

Since then, the town has grown considerably. The majority of those small houses have been rebuilt as large two-story houses with attics, basements and garages. The desirability of the town has soared and the housing prices have gone up accordingly, with only three dozen homes (including condos) currently listed on Yahoo's real estate site for less than one million dollars (and 162 properties listed between $1 million and $7 million). Granted, some of that inflation is due to the overall real estate bubble of recent years, but it is indicative of how much the town has changed.

I was thinking about the transformation I've witnessed over the decades and wondered what caused it (and, of course, how we might implement something similar in Waterbury). One important contributing factor was the quality of the schools. The real estate market became increasingly competitive because there were so many parents trying to get their kids into the schools. If you visit, you'll see that the highest-ranking Manhattan Beach public schools are rated 10 out of 10 points, whereas the Waterbury public schools range between 1 and 5 (very low scores), with Rotella getting the only 6 and Kaynor Tech the only 7. (On a side note, this answers some questions I've heard from people wondering why Kaynor Tech is so popular and why so many of its students are college-bound, rather than going straight into the work force).

The newly-rebuilt Kaynor Tech high school,
Waterbury's highest-rated school

This is by no means a comprehensive or even scientific analysis, but I think this is definitely something that does make a difference in a town's prosperity, not only because having the best schools will make Waterbury more desirable, but because better schools will give Waterbury's students better educations, and we will all benefit from that.

Alan Stein, a professor at UConn-Waterbury, wrote an excellent letter to the editor that appeared in yesterday's Rep-Am newspaper. The focus of his letter was an argument in favor of electing aldermen by district (which I strongly support), but he also wrote a very good observation about the Board of Education:

Some may question whether it's even appropriate for a Board of Education to be an elected body.

The political nature of that board is probably partly responsible for the recent attempt of some of its members to force school principals to ignore the Constitution.

I think that our Board of Education is fundamentally flawed, and I think that Prof. Stein is probably correct in assigning part of the blame to its political nature. Given the less than wonderful ratings of our schools (not just from the Great Schools website), the sole focus of the Board of Education should be searching for ways to make the schools better and implementing those improvements. Instead the Board seems to spend its time squabbling and grandstanding over Christmas parties vs. Winter Celebrations, the Duggan School construction project, and problems with the management of the school buses.

Our schools are some of the lowest-rated in the country. Let's make them the highest-rated.


Anonymous said...

Waterbury Girl for BOE!

Joe said...

You just can't compare Waterbury Schools against an upscale LA suburb, like Manhattan Beach. According to the Census' ACS survey 2006-2008, Manhattan Beach's median HH income was $127,621 vs Waterbury's $41,613. The most obvious explanation is that Manhattan Beach residents are considerably better off, and that is reflected in their schools. The same is certainly true in Greenwich, Darien, and Westport. The ratings that they show for individual schools is purely based on standardized testing in the state, which never really bodes well for urban schools

For quick comparison, gives Waterbury School Dist. 3 of 10, while New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport each received 2 of 10. That should tell you things aren't all bad here. Also, while Hartford may have all at-large councilmembers, both New Haven and Bridgeport vote for their councilors/aldermen by district, so I'm not sure that that initiative will change much locally.

Waterbury Girl said...

Joe, I am disturbed by what you wrote. You seem to be saying that poor people are simply out of luck when it comes to education, that there is no chance of improving the quality of the schools in Connecticut cities, that we should be content to have schools with the lowest possible ratings. Maybe I'm missing your point.

Speaking of which, I think you missed my point. I'm not comparing Waterbury now to Manhattan Beach now. I'm comparing Waterbury now to Manhattan Beach 20 years ago, when the population consisted largely of teachers, firemen and blue collar workers. I'm sure the median income in MB was far less, even adjusting for inflation, 20 years ago.

My point is that MB became affluent because they put their energy into improving their schools, making this is one more reason to improve Waterbury's schools.

Joe said...

Twenty years ago, in 1989, median household income was $67,723 in Manhattan Beach and $30,533 in Waterbury. Check the Census website. This is not a recent development in Manhattan Beach.

I do not seek to disparage the low-income population or start a fight with you. I'm sorry if it came off that way. I merely wanted to present facts to add to the discussion. The CT Dept of Education has created Educational Resource Groups (ERGs) to draw effective comparisons among school districts. Please take a look at to see how the state categorizes school districts. That's what I used for my comparison. Relative to other cities in our ERG, we're doing well. I hope that helps to illustrate my point.

Joe said...

Sorry WaterburyGirl... I reread your statement about comparing incomes in Waterbury now and Manhattan Beach in 1989. My mistake.

What I should have said was that the median household income in Waterbury now ($41,613) is equivalent to $23,800 in 1989 dollars according to the BLS's inflation calculator. Manhattan Beach's median income was $67,723 in 1989.

cowpuppyranch said...

Making an investment in improving the school system leads to parents wanting to get their parents into the school. Those parents will move their families into the town, increasing housing prices and increasing property taxes collected. Adults with school age children are usually of working age, thus also bringing in additional income tax. Working parents will also want to see the school systems continue to excel, and so they will vote to have their money fund school projects. Eventually, after years of initial investment, it becomes a self-sustaining system.

Of course there also have to be jobs for those parents…

Waterbury Girl said...

Thanks for the figures Joe. I think they support my argument. In the past 20 years, the median household income in Manhattan Beach went from $67k to $127k while Waterbury's increased from $30k to $41k. Certainly there are other factors involved, but the excellent MB schools make that community far more desirable than Waterbury.