School Desegregation Issue Had Been Stuck In The State Legislature
July 6, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
The struggle to desegregate Hartford's public schools is back in court.
Plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill case filed a legal motion Thursday, saying they will wait no longer for the legislature to approve a tentative agreement that would require the state to take aggressive new measures to reduce racial isolation in Hartford's public schools.
A 4-year-old settlement in the long-running case failed to reach its goals and expired last week. The state and the Sheff plaintiffs reached a tentative agreement in late May that would establish new goals and extend the settlement, but the legislature so far has not approved the extension.
The proposed extension calls on the state to spend millions of dollars more over the next five years to subsidize magnet schools, charter schools and other programs designed to bolster integration.
The legislature, which received the settlement as its regular spring session was coming to a close, is expected to take up the issue in a special session later this month.
"Time is wasting, and kids are not being properly educated," Wesley W. Horton, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said after filing a motion asking the courts to enforce a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to reduce racial isolation in Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic schools.
The motion, filed before Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr., is the latest step in a legal case that began 18 years ago and led to a 2003 court-approved settlement designed to expand opportunities for Hartford students to enroll in racially integrated magnet schools and predominantly white suburban schools.
That settlement set a target calling for 30 percent of Hartford students to be enrolled in racially integrated schools by this year, but the effort has fallen short.
A recent study by Trinity College researchers reported that only 9 percent of the city's students attend schools that have enough white students to qualify as racially integrated under the Sheff agreement. At the same time, enrollments at many of Hartford's schools, including some magnets, remain almost entirely black and Hispanic.
The Trinity report found that magnet schools, instead of drawing white suburban children into the city, have been more popular among black and Hispanic suburban families. It also found that previous gains under a program allowing city children to enroll in suburban schools have stagnated.
Thursday's legal motion would have little effect if the legislature approves the tentative settlement, but lawmakers said they will need more time to review the proposed settlement before voting later this month.
"We received this settlement ... less than 48 hours before the adjournment of the regular session" in June, said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature's Education Committee. "To expect the General Assembly to take this up when we're grappling with the state budget in that short a time frame is absolutely unreasonable."
Among the lawmakers' concerns, according to Gaffey, is the poor track record of the original settlement. "There has been very little progress at reducing racial isolation in Hartford's schools," he said. "What is the evidence we're going to be any better off?"
Gaffey, D-Meriden, said he plans to schedule a hearing to review questions about the Sheff proposal, including whether it complies with last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting schools from assigning students to schools on the basis of race.
Although the goal of the Sheff settlement is to reduce racial isolation, officials have said the Sheff programs are not affected by the Supreme Court's ruling because students are selected for schools based on where they live, and are not singled out by race.
Gaffey also said lawmakers want to know why Hartford officials did not sign on to the latest tentative agreement.
Although Hartford plans to comply with the terms of the Sheff agreement, officials decided not to sign because of the cost of busing students and building new magnet schools under the original agreement, Hartford Corporation Counsel John Rose said. Under the original settlement, the state paid the bulk of the cost, but Hartford also spent millions of dollars, he said.
If the city had received guarantees that those costs would be covered completely by the state under the new tentative settlement, "we would have signed off," he said. "That's really what it's about."
Although the court allowed city officials to take part in settlement negotiations, the settlement was between the plaintiffs and the state. The city could have signed on, but its approval was not required.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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