Bridgeport ranked highest in the nation for “family flight” as middle income families flee urban areas with failing schools, according to research done by Dr. Bartley Danielson, associate professor of finance and real estate at North Carolina State University.
Danielsen examined 100 metropolitan areas across the United States and compared census data for families with children aged 0-4 and 5-9. His findings showed that families whose children reach school age relocate out of areas with poor performing schools.
The New Haven and Hartford metro areas were also in the top 12 locations with families moving away from poorly performing schools.
The families leaving metropolitan areas like Bridgeport are largely middle-income families. Danielsen says this contributes to “spatial separating” between middle-income families and poor families who may not have the means to leave an urban area.
Connecticut has the highest income gap in the country as well as the highest school performance gap, with many of the failing schools in urban areas such as Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury.
Danielson believes this separation between the middle class and the poor contributes to the continuing decline in urban areas such as Bridgeport. Families leave urban areas due to poor schools and with them goes businesses which cater to the middle class - such as shopping centers and grocery stores. The lack of investment causes the urban areas to fall into further decline due to lack of jobs, tax revenue and business creation. “It’s beneficial to the poor to have middle class neighbors,” said Danielsen.
Attorney Robert Russo, who serves on the Bridgeport zoning board of appeals and is former director of Gov. Jodi Rell's southwest office, said the close proximity of good schools outside Bridgeport city lines makes it easy for families to relocate.
"Family flight in Bridgeport is clearly accelerated by the fact that there are good school districts located less than a mile or two from most Bridgeport residents," Russo said. "It’s possible for a Bridgeport family to move to a surrounding town and not even have to change supermarkets."
Russo believes that the Bridgeport school system has a greater effect on family flight than the city's tax burden. "If the only obstacle was the high property taxes, most young Bridgeport families would likely stay, but instead most young families start planning their departure from the city the moment they're pregnant."
Although some states have used vouchers so children from low-income families can attend better schools outside their districts, Danielson says the affect of the vouchers does nothing to family flight by middle income families.
He advocates offering a voucher system for all families in an urban area with failing schools so as to invite middle income families to either remain or move to the cities. “If you want middle income people to live near poor people, you have to give them incentives.”
Danielsen believes that middle income families may be willing to move to or remain in cities if they could be guaranteed their children could attend good schools. The community investment that would come from families of greater wealth would help improve the overall conditions of the community and the schools in that area.
As further evidence, Danielsen points to the creation of a charter school in Santa Ana, California, which used public funds as part of an infrastructure project. The charter school was a success and now educates 3,500 children and encouraged families to stay in Santa Ana. In an op-ed for the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, Danielsen wrote, “Downtown has revitalized. Crime dropped dramatically. In the decade before the schools’ arrival, there were more than 40 gang-related murders in multiple years. But in 2011 Forbes magazine rated the city as the fourth-safest city in the country.”
Connecticut’s approach to the failures of urban schools has been to create magnate schools, which students can attend. There are currently 95 magnet schools in Connecticut, largely due to the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neil decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which said that unintentional racial segregation in the schools was unconstitutional. But the results of those efforts have been faulted by the families involved in the case.
In September of 2016, the state received more bad news from the courts when Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that Connecticut’s system of school funding was “irrational” and the state was “defaulting on it’s constitutional duty” to adequately educate all children.
Danielsen believes that magnet schools often fail to address the underlying problems with the education system. “They are not independently operated. An independent school usually has as a critical goal making that individual school as successful as possible. Districts often want to make the system, not any individual school, as successful as possible. Doing so might mean sacrificing the interests of an individual school for some greater collective good.”
“I’m not saying it cannot work,” he said, “but in practice they often have shortcomings that are severe and self-defeating.”
Amanda Pinto, communications director for Achievement First, a non-profit charter school network, says that magnet schools are often limited in how many seats they can offer children from poor urban environments. “Connecticut has some outstanding magnet schools,” Pinto said. “But the magnet school model draws both urban and suburban students, so that means there’s a ceiling on the number of students from the cities that can go to those schools because there are a certain number of seats held open for students from suburban areas.”
Pinto says that Achievement First charter schools only accept students from the cities in which they’re located. “When we open a charter school in Bridgeport, that can only serve Bridgeport kids.” Achievement First operates an elementary and middle school in Bridgeport. It operates a total of eleven schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford.
There are currently 24 charter schools in Connecticut. As of 2014 charters school students accounted for 1.3 percent of school enrollment according to the Connecticut Department of Education.
The ultimate goal for Danielsen, however, isn’t about education as much as improving the the conditions of urban areas. Because middle-income families are mobile enough to move to a better school district, Danielsen believes that changing the education policies in Connecticut cities may reverse that trend and keep those families from fleeing metropolitan areas in Connecticut.
“Young people like living in cities,” Danielsen said. “We should make incentives to keep them there after they have started families.”