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A Long Way From Fixing Our Schools

February 2, 2006
Commentary By Helen Ubiņas,

No lack of ideas outside Quirk Middle School Wednesday morning about how to improve education.

Better lunches, said Khristina DeJesus. "Seriously," the 11-year-old said when she saw me smirk; it's hard learning on an empty stomach, harder after ingesting some of the food from the cafeteria.

Field trips, suggested Kerry Williams and Kimberly Tirado. Six Flags. New York. Boston science museum. Did he mention Six Flags, asked Kerry? Nothing like a little roller coaster-induced adrenaline to get the brain pumping.

Funnier teachers, said Brianna Perry. Absolutely, her friends agreed. Their social studies teacher, Mr. Cantor, has a good sense of humor. But other than him, they said, teachers could stand to loosen up a bit.

"They need some good jokes," said Priscilla Rosa.

OK, so maybe the kids' ideas won't exactly fix what's broken in our schools. But at least they were actually talking about education, which is more than we can say about the grownups gathered in a New Haven courtroom this week.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act may have changed education - for better or worse - in public schools all over the country, but that isn't what the court fight is about. It's about money.

For Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, it's straight up about the money: He says the feds don't pay enough for Connecticut to administer the law.

It's a little more roundabout for the NAACP, which this week sought to join the federal government in defending the law. For them, the statewide testing required by the law is a way to measure achievement - or, more precisely, the lack of it - in urban schools. And the lack of achievement in urban schools highlights the need to implement the desegregation demanded by the Sheff vs. O'Neill decision. And what's required for desegregation is, of course, money.

When Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile says that standing alongside the feds on this one is the lesser of two evils, I can see his point: Testing does offer some accountability, some way to measure success.

In fact, to the extent that Hartford schools have rallied since their nadir in the late '90s, it has been behind a slogan derived from the city's perennial standing in a state-mandated test: "We will never be last again." And we haven't been.

But Connecticut still has one of the largest gaps in the nation between the scores of white students and the scores of minority students.

And testing isn't going to fix what's broken, not when so much of what's wrong with the schools has to do with poverty, economics and community and parental accountability.

In hindsight, said John C. Brittain, one of the lawyers pressing the NAACP's case, perhaps it would have made more sense to have quietly filed the motion. That way they wouldn't have created false hopes, he said; people see the NAACP get involved and they think something positive might come of it.

"In most suits, you get something if you win," he said. "All the NAACP is going to do is maintain the status quo, which is broken."

But, Brittain said, at least the NAACP can use the case to focus attention on the real problem.

He's right about that. The issue of quality education for poor and minority schoolchildren can use all the attention it can get. It's been 10 years since the state Supreme Court ruled in Sheff vs. O'Neill that the state had a constitutional duty to desegregate the city's classrooms. And yet another generation of minority children is going to school in isolation, still lagging behind white peers.

But what's going on in that New Haven courtroom won't get us any closer to fixing that.

Back at Quirk, one of the students did have a serious suggestion: "Make sure you write `More books,'" Terrell Dickson told me.

And as I turned to another group of kids, Kerry Williams added one more thought.

"Thanks for asking," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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