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Can $300 Million Fix Inequality In Connecticut Schools?

Evan Denny
Paula Fortuna, a world literature teacher at the Center for Global Studies magnet program at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, helps one of her students in class.

Connecticut grapples with disparity in public education. Now, hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio has pledged $100 million to help close the gap. That is, as long as the state and others match the funds. A foundation run by Dalio’s wife has shaped public education in the state for nearly two decades.

During a science class at Brien McMahon High School, a diverse public school in Norwalk, teacher Joe Laprad explains a biology concept to a student at one of the lab tables.

Laprad is a beneficiary of the Dalio Foundation’s Fund for Teachers. He used his fellowship to study in Colombia.

“We went to a country that a lot of our students come from in order to learn about their educational system, in order to best place them when they get here. But probably more importantly so we can be allies for them when they get here.”

Laprad says the fellowship helped him and his colleagues develop a course called Science Foundations for Newcomers – it’s an English language course integrated into math and science classes.

“It’s pretty cool. We try to get them to read, write, listen and speak every single day.”’

His colleague Paula Fortuna teaches world literature. She had a grant to go to the University of Indiana at Bloomington and later, Japan.

“We feel like we are in the hedge fund industry or something because we were treated with so many nice perks and meals, and we felt extremely valued.”

The Dalio Foundation has given $32 million in grants to teachers since 2001.

“At the end of the day, it’s the individual practitioner who is going to make sure than an effort is effective or not. Because they are the ones doing the work,” said Karen Webb, who is with the foundation.

This has made the teacher unions in Connecticut supportive of the Dalio gift, but some parents and educators wonder who will decide how the money would be spent. Sarah Miller, a public school activist in New Haven, worries because private donors and taxpayer money have to match Dalio’s gift.

“Because it’s not only the $100 million from him. He’s asking the state to match it with $100 million that now is going to be subservient to the Dalio donation, and the Dalio initiative and whatever structure is making decisions. And so instead of having those monies available for the public good and having communities have some say over how that is going to be used, it’s potentially going to be used, instead directed, by private entities.”

Miller is concerned because she’s seen how other big donations to schools have played out. Dale Russakoff wrote the book on such gifts. She followed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools in 2010.

“The large amount of money that was used to try to improve strategies had a mixed effect that’s kind of hard to sort out.”

Russakoff says reading scores improved, but math did not. On top of that, she says as much as $20 million was spent on high priced consultants. Local educators felt they had little input. Russakoff says Dalio may have learned some lessons from that.

“A lot of philanthropies really took note of that Zuckerberg experience and are trying to rethink the way they engage with communities. I don’t know if he’s one of those or not, but it would be interesting to see what they do differently.”

Ray Dalio himself says philanthropy alone is not the answer. During an appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” correspondent Bill Whitaker asked Dalio if taxes should be raised on the wealthy.

“Should taxes on people like you be raised…of course…one way or another the important thing is to take those tax dollars and make them productive.”

Amy Dowell agrees that Dalio’s gift cannot make up for public funding. She’s the state director of Democrats for Education Reform-Connecticut, a political group that supports public schools.

“Just for perspective, our state spends over $200 million a year just in Bridgeport. And this is $300 million over five years, spread across the entire state. So it shouldn’t dramatically take the gas pedal off in terms of (state) aid to public school districts.”

The Dalio Foundation has said it wants to involve local school communities. The initiative aims to help students from places with high poverty rates graduate from high school and get jobs.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.