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In The Wake Of Worsening Achievement Gap, Officials Ponder Private Help For Public Schools

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With classes being held online or in hybrid situations, the education achievement gap between the wealthiest school districts in Fairfield County and the poorest has grown.

Although public school districts in the state will receive a total of more than a billion dollars in pandemic relief from the federal government, it’s not likely to close the gap. Officials are looking at whether public-private partnerships could help — or hurt — this effort.

Bridgewater Associates Chair Ray Dalio speaks in Beijing in March 2019.
Credit Ng Han Guan / AP
Bridgewater Associates Chair Ray Dalio speaks in Beijing in March 2019.

A large-scale public private partnership with hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio’s family foundation was launched in 2019. It was unsuccessful, but it did help provide a link to distance learning for a number of Connecticut families during the pandemic. State officials are looking at how other public-private partnerships are working or failing across the state. 

Governor Ned Lamont was enthusiastic when he launched the Connecticut Partnership for Education in a packed gymnasium at East Hartford High School.

“The Dalio Foundation is going to contribute $100 million to make sure your education is the best that it can be," Lamont said to cheers. "Your education is the best that it can be. We educate the whole person. We love the student.”

On the WSHU weekly talk show, The Full Story, Tom Kuser discusses solutions to education following a school year disrupted by the global pandemic.

Connecticut was to match the Dalio gift over five years and work to raise another $100 million from other philanthropic groups. But the partnership was hardly up and running before it fell apart the very first year. A disappointed Lamont, who had styled himself as Connecticut’s education governor, again made an announcement.

“I came here to this job. I really wanted to be the education governor. I thought it was the most important thing that I could do — in terms of the future of our state, the future of a lot of kids, some of whom were getting left behind,” Lamont said.

There was a silver lining to the short-lived partnership which came in handy in the opening days of the pandemic.

Credit Carolyn Thompson / AP

"That partnership in a year made available 60,000 laptops for kids who would otherwise not have access to education… online education,” Lamont said.

State Representative Vincent Candelora is the House Republican Minority Leader. He and some other lawmakers had opposed the partnership. Candelora said the problem was a clash of cultures between the public and private sectors.

“I think generally the concern that I had with the way that it was structured is that we created a sort of quasi-public agency and exempted it from Freedom of Information law so that it was able to operate in secret, despite the fact that public officials were serving on that board,” Candelora said.

Candelora said of paramount concern was the fact that $100 million in public funds were to be potentially administered by a private entity.

“And you know with that, the same rules just don’t apply to the government as they do to private business. And I think it just sort of collapsed because of it,” he said.

Fred McKinney, the Carlton Highsmith chair of innovation and entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University, said public education would be more equitably funded if the wealthy paid more in taxes rather than donating money to specific schools.

But he said not all public-private partnerships lack public transparency, naming the state's airport authority as an example. He also said some education-based partnerships have been successful.

“I think we could point to charter schools and even the Dalio Foundation, in the Stamford-Norwalk area in particular, and even in New Haven we have various charter schools that are sort of privately funded, providing education service to teens,” Candelora said.

Fred McKinney, the Carlton Highsmith chair of innovation and entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University, said public education would be more equitably funded if the wealthy paid more in taxes rather than donating money to specific schools.

“That very system that created that wealth also created the poverty that those philanthropists, business philanthropists, are trying to address. So I think we really in this country have to say we have to confront that,” McKinney said.

McKinney acknowledges that the Connecticut Partnership did provide 60,000 laptops for students from underserved communities that otherwise would not be available to the students during the pandemic.

This year progressive Democrats proposed increased taxes on the wealthy. But they did not have Lamont’s support and the proposals died during budget negotiations with the governor.

Patrice McCarthy is with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. She believes there is a role for wealthy philanthropists. She said the scale of the Dalio Foundation’s partnership with Connecticut was probably the problem. McCarthy said for years the foundation has worked very successfully with individual schools.

“For instance, a school district can work directly with a foundation like the Dalio Foundation and identify specific goals that can really make significant contributions for the education system,” McCarthy said.

She said the foundation’s ability to get laptops and free Wi-Fi to thousands of students across the state during the lockdown should not be dismissed.

“The Dalio Foundation funded a significant amount of laptop purchases that were needed to make sure that when students had to be engaged in distance learning they had the devices in their homes available to them,” McCarthy said.

Norwalk mayor Harry Rilling described a public-private partnership allowing 1,000 families of public school children access to high quality reliable internet service as a lifeline.

Last summer the city of Norwalk partnered with the foundation to provide broadband internet access to all its school-aged children. Dalio gave a $315,000 grant, another philanthropic organization — the Be Foundation — gave $50,000 and the city of Norwalk contributed $150,000.

Norwalk mayor Harry Rilling said it was a lifeline to 1,000 families of public school children who did not have high quality reliable internet service at home. He said the city also provided people to help them navigate the internet.

“They may need help in finding good medical coverage. They may need help in finding good nutrition information. Or they might need food. They might need some sort of assistance for their children that they might now know is available to them," Rilling said.

Two other foundations, the Per and Astrid Heidenreich Family Foundation and the Ritter Family Foundation provided a $125,000 grant each to pay for the family navigators.

And a philanthropic business group that includes Bank of America, First County Bank, Lapine Associates, Pitney Bowes, Synchrony, Tudor Foundation and Xerox is funding local nonprofit educational organizations in Fairfield County. Its first round of $300,000 in grants has just been awarded to seven programs.

McCarthy said while quantifiable data won’t be available until the fall, she's sure students would have fallen further behind without the support.

“Those resources have helped the district to provide supports to students and maintain student engagement and make real efforts to close the achievement gap,” McCarthy said.

In the meantime, the Dalio Foundation continues its partnership with the East Hartford School District where its ill-fated partnership with Connecticut was launched.

Its funding helps East Hartford provide a mentoring program for individual students.

Jeniece Roman contributed reporting to this article.

This story was made with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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.
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