Connecticut Post: State Sen. Tony Hwang (opinion): A crowded summer education meeting in Fairfield… and the message I heard.

August 2, 2023

State Sen. Tony Hwang (opinion): A crowded summer education meeting in Fairfield… and the message I heard.

Commentary Written by State Senator Tony Hwang Aug. 2, 2023

Pretty close to standing room only.

That was the scene I witnessed at the July 20th Fairfield Board of Education’s school redistricting meeting.

On a warm midsummer night, concerned parents took time out of their busy summer vacation schedules to fill the room. Why? They are very concerned about their children’s education as well as their children’s social and emotional well-being.

What I saw that night reminded me of what spurred me to get involved in public service nearly 16 years ago. My wife and I were parents who were worried about our children’s education and how they would be impacted by the tumult of school redistricting. So, as a result, this first-generation immigrant joined in a community effort to ensure our children’s education and socio-emotional well-being were protected.

I mention this because nearly 50 years ago, when I first immigrated to the United States, I had no prior English language or socio-cultural immersion. I felt like a fish out of water and was struggling academically. I was able to succeed because my parents made tremendous sacrifices and created a structured home setting to ensure my educational success. I am eternally grateful to the caring, patient, and inspirational teachers who supported and empowered me to strive, study and develop an internal self-confidence to work toward academic success.

On July 20th, at the Fairfield Board of Education meeting, I heard the same passion and urgency in parents’ voices and saw it in their faces. I value, respect, and support the mission and need for equal access to a quality education for every child in every community in Connecticut. We understand Connecticut’s unfortunate history of educational inequities and agree that we must constantly be working to do better.

Legislative and educational leaders have a responsibility to address policies, and to correct historical and current educational achievement gaps based on economics. State and local education policies need to also understand unique learning needs that are balanced on a foundation of socio-emotional learning and reinforced through community support. This is especially important in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic restrictions imposed by government mandates that have negatively impacted student learning and mental health. Stability and predictability are crucial to our children’s educational development, while drastic change will only add to students’ challenges and struggles.

At the jam-packed special BOE meeting, despite the midsummer timing, I heard highly engaged parents advocating for their children’s education and suggesting alternate solutions that will not impact stability and predictability. I have personally visited and fully appreciate how all of Fairfield’s elementary schools are uniquely special with eager students, appreciative parents and wonderful teachers and administrators. It reminded me of my own parental experience.

McKinley Elementary School is a nurturing learning environment that bolsters student learning through language adaptation challenges while also reinforcing student confidence through racial and social equity awareness. All of that positivity was on full display when CT’s Department of Education commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker and state Board of Education members toured McKinley at my request earlier this year. These top decision-makers marveled at the joyous and thriving learning that McKinley students, teachers and administrators proudly promote and sustain.

McKinley School as a “magnet” will be a visionary and culturally successful education model precisely because McKinley already embodies that model right now. McKinley has a demonstrated record as a successful experience in diversity, social equity and inclusion. The school is striving to achieve educational and standardized testing goals while also reinforcing the organic and powerful socio-emotional learning success for students.

The excellent article by Jarrod Wardwell in Hearst Media CT shares some insight that Connecticut’s 54-year-old school desegregation law may need an update to prevent forcing transfers predominantly upon students of color. Education experts said the state desegregation law places Connecticut in “unique” territory of enforcing a racial balance across its school districts that overlooks modern methods of school integration. Those modern methods involve funding through a more socioeconomic lens instead of one that places students into racial categories.

“The policy is only about moving and shifting chairs,” said David Kirkland, the founder and CEO of forwardED, a company that develops equitable education strategies. “It’s not a racial equity policy. It’s a kind of cosmetic act that we see that came out of the desegregation era that does little to nothing to really change the status quo.” Kirkland said the desegregation law takes the “wrong focus” in applying diversity to education. He said a redistricting process built on a basis of racial quotas treats students more like “objects” than people with respective identities and education needs.

Connecticut’s racial imbalance law still clings to an outdated legislative standard in which desegregation was the baseline for a tolerable education. A more effective approach would address areas of socioeconomic needs instead of pulling children out of their own neighborhoods for school.

Stephanie Monroe, a U.S. assistant education secretary under former President George W. Bush, headed the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after the Supreme Court ruled against a pair of public education policies in Seattle and Louisville that used race to regulate enrollment numbers. The court held that the racial classifications in public school enrollment policies must be “narrowly tailored” to either “remedy the effects of intentional discrimination” or to enhance student diversity in higher education, the latter of which the court struck down with its affirmative action decision last month.

Monroe said public school enrollment policies should be race neutral instead of adopting racial quotas so families can choose the community makeup and specialized resources that would best serve their children. She said improvements to educational performance come from funding that supports public schools in areas of need, not relocating students to other parts of a school district.

“These are challenges that we had and probably still have today with people putting kids in certain categories, either based on race, based on performance, based on perception and really not giving kids the opportunity and the access and equipping them with the tools that they need,” she said. “So, I feel like that needs to be our focus.”

As Fairfield’s state senator, I represent and support students and their loving parents and caregivers who want to create a sustainable and successful educational school district structure. I will commit to work with Fairfield Board of Education members and the superintendent of schools to advocate with the State Department of Education and keep the already healthy lines of communication open. Our mutual focus at all levels of government and educational institutions must always be on students’ achievements as well as their socio-emotional well-being, not based on quotas and racial categories.

State Sen. Tony Hwang, a Republican who represents the 28th Senate District, is a Fairfield resident and parent of graduates of Fairfield Public Schools.