When it comes to East Hartford High School, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos still doesnâ€™t really know what she was talking about a year ago when she disparaged it with an anecdote about a student who had a bad time there two decades ago.
But then scolding DeVos over this at a congressional hearing last week, Connecticut U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D-2nd District, didnâ€™t seem to know what he was talking about either. Courtney complained that DeVos never replied to the East Hartford students and others who wrote to her protesting her remarks and inviting her to visit East Hartfordâ€™s schools. DeVosâ€™ response to Courtney was lame: that she had not yet fully staffed her office, though she has been occupying it for more than a year.
Yes, to judge East Hartfordâ€™s schools - and by extension, as DeVos was doing, all public schools - on a 17-year-old anecdote was unfair and ridiculous. It was also stupid because a timely and documented indictment of those schools was and remains available in the testimony given two years ago by East Hartfordâ€™s own school officials in the latest Connecticut school financing lawsuit.
Protesting DeVosâ€™ anecdote last year, students, teachers, town officials, and even East Hartfordâ€™s U.S. representative, John B. Larson, a former teacher at East Hartford High, proclaimed that the townâ€™s schools were actually much improved and wonderful. But thatâ€™s not the testimony Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher had gotten from East Hartford a year earlier.
Acknowledging the poor academic performance of East Hartfordâ€™s schools, School Superintendent Nathan Quesnel testified that 71 percent of local students qualify for free or cut-rate lunches, 15 percent suffer learning disabilities, 12 percent donâ€™t know English, and hundreds are transient and disoriented as their families, most headed by single women, lose and regain housing.
The superintendent said that because so many students are profoundly disadvantaged at home, the schools need social workers to do what parents ordinarily do - â€śto teach students how to understand themselves, how to understand each other, how to understand appropriate relationships, and then the coping skills for when crisis happens.â€ť
East Hartford High science teacher Tracy Snyder testified: â€śI have students who are depressed. I have students who have attempted suicide. I have students who have post-traumatic stress disorder. I have a lot of kids with severe self-esteem issues. I have kids with anger issues.â€ť Snyder added that while teachers in other towns also have troubled students, she has 10 for each one of theirs.
East Hartford High Principal Matthew Ryan testified: â€śOne of my social workers comes down to my office and, red-faced, starts crying because heâ€™s stressed out. He canâ€™t handle it anymore. Itâ€™s too much.â€ť
The East Hartford officials described the failings of their schools to try to get more money. DeVos described the failings of East Hartford High and public schools generally to argue for spending money to help students escape to private schools. Itâ€™s a difficult subject because nothing government does with schools makes much difference.
But now that Courtney is pressing the matter, DeVos should order transcripts of the testimony of the East Hartford educators, accept the invitation to visit the town, present the transcripts to her critics, and rock them by asking: How was I wrong?
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.