By Richard Weizel
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters rallied in downtown New Haven on Wednesday, urging education reform to address a performance gap between the state's richest and poorest school districts.
The rally was organized by groups including Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, which wants more public funding for inner-city schools, and policies that make it easier for parents to transfer children to charter and magnet schools.
"This is a social issue, a civil rights issue," Jack Bryant, vice president of the Connecticut NAACP, told protesters who jammed the New Haven Green, braving a steady, cold rain. They wore green T-shirts with the slogan "For Every Child" emblazoned on the front.
Activists nationwide have bemoaned the effect of income inequality on school district funding. Among U.S. states, Connecticut has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor, according to U.S. Census data.
A 2013 report by the Connecticut Coalition showed a wide gap between educational performance in cities like Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven and the state's wealthy bedroom communities.
The report said low-income fourth graders in Connecticut were performing as much as three grade levels behind their more affluent peers, while whites were broadly outstripping blacks and Hispanics in math and reading. It said 8,000 students drop out of schools in Connecticut every year, with many of them eventually turning to crime.
Governor Dannel Malloy pledged to make education reform a top priority in his second term. A spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Education was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday's protest.
"No child should have to struggle in failing schools, and the size and location of someone's house should not determine whether their children can get a quality education," said Tara Maxwell, a Bridgeport parent with three children attending charter schools.
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch told protesters at the rally that two of his four sons attend public schools in his city, but that as mayor and a parent he worries about the quality of the education they are receiving.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio)