On February 21, 2018 at the New Haven City Hall, the Education Committee of the New Haven Board of Alders convened for a “Workshop on the Welfare of the Recent Student Arrivals from Puerto Rico.” New Haven-area public schools have been working to integrate students in community, as well as care for their families who have recently moved to New Haven after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. The meeting was a chance for representatives from the New Haven community to recount to the alders how these new arrivals and their families have impacted the local public school system and offer recommendations to the alders about how they can help support the schools.
Many representatives from local schools, including staff members from nearby Wilbur Cross High School, presented statistics and testimony regarding the challenges faced in the process of welcoming these arrivals into the community. One representative who spoke was a staff member in charge of enrollment at the school. She detailed the process of admitting new students and evaluating the services each student would require. This includes a home language survey that assessed the language abilities of the students and matches them with the appropriate English language learning service programs if required. A representative of the superintendent’s office recounted issues involving 12th grade students arriving in New Haven without their transcripts, and thus having to determine credits and graduation requires. Much of the testimony, however, focused on the housing crisis that will begin with the end of funding on March 20, which was financing temporary housing for the new arrivals. Representing the state’s perspective, a representative from Governor’s office testified to a state-wide funding issue that is derived from the refusal of the federal government to provide resources. To cope with this shortage, the state government had initiated a bonus program for funding in which districts with larger populations of arrivals from Puerto Rico would receive supplemental funding from the state budget.
The committee called for public testimony and welcomed members of the audience to speak, after which a number of recent Puerto Rican arrivals spoke to the alders about their experience both back in Puerto Rico, as well as now adjusting to life in New Haven. This included testimony from parents about their children, who were also present at the meeting. They spoke of how quickly the hurricane and resulting dangerous conditions forced them out of Puerto Rico, the resources they need most urgently now, and the anxiety they felt about the nearing end of FEMA-provided housing. The perspectives provided by delegates of the school system, the state government, as well as the Puerto Rican arrivals painted a full picture of how the hurricane has come to affect local communities in New Haven and also offered insight into the situation in Connecticut more broadly.
The liveliness of the public’s participation was a positive reflection upon the democratic process: the local government opened a forum for and encouraged input from anyone in the community to share their experiences and suggestions. It was interesting that as new members of the community, the students and families from Puerto Rico were willing to speak up and take an active role in government, despite only living in New Haven for a few months at most.
What was particularly striking as well was that the voices represented at the meeting were united in their opinion of the solution to the challenges testified about. All agreed that more funding by the state and the city is needed for the students and families. There was no opposition voice to the call for more funding for the new arrivals. Testimonies all stood for a shared mission of supporting the arrivals, and there were no counterarguments made about providing this funding, including arguments made for where money might be better used or should go instead. There was never a feeling that the new arrivals would not be supported to the full ability of the schools and programs involved, even if this support might conflict with other city or school priorities. The unity of the message and the embrace of the arrivals provides insight into where New Haven is aligned in the national debate over supporting Puerto Rico and its people after the hurricane. It also brings to light a larger question to consider regarding New Haven politics: how the overwhelming strength of the Democratic Party in city politics interacts with its constituents, the state, and the nation.
Into the echo chamber?
While supporting the smooth integration of new arrivals from Puerto Rico is not an explicitly partisan issue, after taking a step back, it becomes clear that the level of consensus at the Board of Alders meeting did speak to the lack of representation of both sides of the political spectrum in New Haven’s government. It is a political system to which no Republicans have been elected in years. The left-leaning government, as it stands currently, is mostly representative of its mostly liberal constituency, however it calls into question what might be left out of the conversation.
There may be a potentially valuable voice missing from debate. This voice may be the voice of Republican New Haven residents, or even a devil’s advocate sort of voice to push the conversation. With a government so solidly Democratic, it may be difficult for the few Republican voters to relate to or feel as though their interests are represented by the New Haven government. Considering New Haven in the context of the state and country, it may also mean that New Haven government is unable to provide a colorful perspective to two-sided debates when the ideas that originate in the New Haven City Hall only represent one side.
Rather than a critique solely about the New Haven government, this appears to be a fundamental issue associated with a winner-take-all electoral system. In a system like this, it is easy to see why polarization can intensify. One party can take every seat in a government, making supporters of the other feel as though they have absolutely no representation. It is important to acknowledge the other side when democratic governance depends on the people’s support and trust to function. Moreover, when a city government depends on state and federal funding, as in the case of New Haven being able to house the new arrivals from Puerto Rico, it may not hurt to take a look at an opposing opinion, even if only to foresee and arrange for alternative solutions if the state and federal governments do not comply.