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Courant: Regional Cooperation Better Than Competition

Sunday August 23, 2015

Regional Cooperation Better Than Competition
August 23, 2015
© Hartford Courant

If Greater Hartford were seeking advice, words to live by, it might consider what Benjamin Franklin supposedly said as he signed the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately.”

Or to put it less ominously: “Regional prosperity takes regional cooperation.” That’s from Metro Hartford Progress Points, a collection of data about the region produced by nine agencies to shed light on “the critical education, income and opportunity gaps that exist in our region.”

Let’s start with the good news, such as it is. Metro Hartford has had one of the country’s five slowest recoveries from the Great Recession, but in the last five years population has crept up by 2 percent and jobs have grown by 3.5 percent in the region.

The bad news is that poverty has become more concentrated in Hartford over the past decade — 14,000 more people live in neighborhoods with at least 40 percent of residents below the poverty line. Plus, 20,000 more people are living in poverty in the suburbs. Poverty is not just an urban problem.

School Enrollment Falls

Education is vital if people are to move out of poverty. Seventy percent of jobs in Connecticut will require post-secondary education by 2025, which means the state must add 4,500 more graduates per year.

But most towns in the region has had declining school enrollments in the last five years — enrollments were flat in Hartford and New Britain but down 12 percent in neighborhood schools, and down 8 percent in the suburbs. This tracks declining birth rates, down 9 percent in the cities, 3 percent in the inner suburbs and 26 percent in the outer suburbs.

The outer suburbs have some of the region’s best performing schools. But some towns have been closing or consolidating schools as enrollment falls. Here’s an opportunity for more regional cooperation.

In the past five years, thanks largely to the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation settlement, 7,000 more students have chosen magnet and charter schools and 700 more youngsters have gotten access to better schools via the Open Choice program. If towns could be convinced — and adequately compensated — to keep those schools open and accept more Open Choice students, as some are, the region would be strengthened.

Affordable Housing

Another option would be to build affordable housing in the towns with high-performing schools. That’s not what has been happening. Of 4,000 affordable housing units built in the region in the last five years, 47 percent were in Hartford and New Britain, almost as many as were built in the other 36 towns in the region combined. Those 36 towns lost a combined 9,000 students in their schools.

The report suggests that all schools need to improve. Nearly half of all students entering public colleges or universities need remedial course work and training, the report says, even those from high-performing districts. In New Britain and Hartford, 68 and 63 percent of high school graduates need remedial help at community colleges or state universities, but 33 percent of graduates from high-performing suburban districts need help as well.

This is troubling because the state’s demand for high-skilled workers is projected to rise by 5 percentage points by 2020, from 37 percent of the workforce to 42 percent.

Many of the jobs that remain in the region have shifted to the suburbs in the past two decades. In that period, the cities lost 23 percent of their jobs and the inner suburbs 2 percent, but employment in the outer suburbs is up 18 percent. Thus the need for better transportation options, such as CTfastrak, which provides access to 150,000 jobs within a mile of its New Britain to (eventually) the Manchester corridor.

The Progress Points message is that there is more benefit to regional collaboration than regional competition. This historically has been a hard sell, but we really are better off hanging together. (See MetroHartfordProgressPoints.org.)

Source: http://www.courant.com/opinion/editorials/hc-ed-hartford-progress-points-report-20150821-story.html