January 25, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
As educators and politicians wring their hands about how to keep children from falling further behind in the nation's worst public schools, one answer comes up more and more often:
Give them the option to leave.
Two events this week - President Bush's State of the Union speech and a press conference at the state Capitol by an education advocacy group Wednesday - included calls for giving low-income families more alternatives such as publicly funded charter schools, magnet schools and other experimental programs.
Bush's proposal included a recommendation that low-income children be offered vouchers to attend private schools.
The proposal was included in a White House background paper on Bush's plan to extend and strengthen the No Child Left Behind Act. The 5-year-old, federal school-reform law is designed to help low-performing students - such as low-income children and members of minority groups - close the achievement gap that separates them from white and middle-class children.
Although voucher plans for private schools have met resistance in Washington and Hartford, the idea of expanding choices has appeal, especially to families in schools that have had little success in closing the achievement gap.
"Would I want my child to go to a school where only one of 50 third-graders can read on grade level? Absolutely not," said Andrea Comer, a Hartford school board member who chose to send her own daughter to a city magnet school.
Although she was not familiar enough with the Bush proposal to comment on it, Comer said, "If neighborhood schools are not up to snuff, then parents should have the right to send a child to a school that is."
The expansion of high-performing charter schools, magnet schools and other small experimental schools is part of a $1.3 billion, six-year plan introduced at the state Capitol Wednesday by the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, also known as ConnCAN, an advocacy group with the goal of "ensuring that every child in our state has access to a great public school."
The group also called for a significant expansion of preschool programs and the recruitment of top-notch teachers and principals as part of its plan for closing the achievement gap, citing statistics showing the gap between low-income and middle-class children is larger in Connecticut than in any other state.
That means, on average, a low-income eighth-grader in Connecticut "is performing on the level of a more affluent student about halfway through fourth grade," said Alex Johnston, the group's executive director. "This is unacceptable."
The coalition has cited schools such as the Amistad Academy charter school in New Haven as models for innovation. However, the state's largest teachers' union, the Connecticut Education Association, issued a report this week disputing a coalition report last fall that gave high marks to several charter schools and magnet schools in rankings of schools on student performance.
The union commissioned a report by Peter Behuniak, a former state Department of Education researcher, that said student turnover, differences in school size and incomplete data made the coalition's findings inconclusive.
"We take issue with the call for expansion of charter schools," said John Yrchik, the union's executive director. Connecticut has 14 small experimental charter schools that operate under an 11-year-old state law. That law, Yrchik said, was never intended to create an entirely different system of schools and, so far, has not led to innovations in other public schools.
Nevertheless, the introduction of charter schools and a large expansion of magnet schools starting in the 1990s created choices that allowed thousands of Connecticut children to leave their neighborhood schools. School choice also is the centerpiece of a 2003 settlement of the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case.
The court-approved settlement called for a significant increase in participation by mostly black and Hispanic Hartford schoolchildren in racially integrated magnet schools and in mostly white suburban schools under a school choice program.
Many of the magnet schools have long waiting lists among both Hartford and suburban families, attesting to the appeal of school choice.
Although supporters see charters, magnets and vouchers as potential solutions to the chronic achievement gap, the vast majority of students in Connecticut and across America still attend traditional public schools.
"What troubles me about this voucher stuff," said former Hartford Councilman Steven Harris, "if parents are given the option, they're going to leap at that, but what does that do for the rest of the kids left behind?"
He cited a recent report showing that about 70 percent of the city's ninth-graders don't make it to graduation.
"That, to me, is criminal," he said. "It seems to me we're ignoring the larger issue and going for the easy fix."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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