Children who learn in classrooms with white, black, brown and yellow faces are best prepared for the real world where, with luck, they will encounter diversity in the workplace. It is common sense that children who interact with peers from different backgrounds will grow up with fewer prejudices and be more likely to get along in a multicultural society.
Sadly, there are not enough of these healthy learning environments, especially in poor urban areas. Historically, courts have had to intervene to create integrated schools. In Connecticut, it has been nearly 18 years since the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill lawsuit was filed to end de facto segregation in the Hartford system, and a decade since the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the state to find remedies for racial isolation.
Progress has been too slow. In 2003, a settlement was reached between the state and the impatient plaintiffs that called for specific measures. Eight new magnet schools were to be built over four years. Participation in an existing program, Open Choice, by which Hartford children could attend school in the suburbs, was to be increased. The goal was to have 30 percent of Hartford students in integrated schools by 2007.
As the June deadline approaches, by the best estimates that number is 23 percent. Some scholars put it as low as 14 percent.
Only three of a dozen Hartford magnet schools exist in new buildings. Several others are in various stages of planning, but not all will be established by the 2007 deadline. Many of the magnets have failed to attract an adequate number of white suburban students. The number of open seats for Hartford students in suburban schools has barely moved.
Meanwhile, the Hartford school system is still 95 percent mostly poor minorities. Test scores have not moved from the basement.
But despite the tortoise pace of change, many more opportunities exist today for students from varied ethnic and economic backgrounds to learn together. Regional magnet schools and independent, publicly funded charter schools have thrived under a formula of compelling curricula and municipal partnerships. Many have been successful in bridging the achievement gap that has persisted in urban school systems, including Hartford's. Unfortunately, these successful schools have long waiting lists.
The state should use the looming deadline in the Sheff case as an opportunity to redouble efforts to provide more choices for Hartford children to get a quality education that will in turn benefit all. At this point, it is clear what's working and what isn't.
The governor and legislature need to expand on the successes by investing in more regional magnet schools with themes that will have parents clamoring for spots on behalf of their kids. They must better fund public charter schools and provide incentives for suburban districts to fill more open seats with Hartford children. They must act on a recommendation to ensure that preschool slots exist for all low-income children who are 3 and 4 years old. And underperforming schools must be improved.
The state has made strides in response to the Sheff decision. It just hasn't made them fast enough to meet the challenge. And, as the Supreme Court noted in its Memorandum of Decision in the Sheff case, the stakes are high:
"Every passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity. Every passing day shortchanges these children in their ability to learn to contribute to their own well-being and to that of this state and nation. We direct the legislature and the executive branch to put the search for appropriate remedial measures at the top of their respective agendas. We are confident that with energy and good will, appropriate remedies can be found and implemented in time to make a difference before another generation of children suffers the consequences of a segregated public school education."
It's been nearly a generation since the suit was filed. Let's not wait until the remedies cease to be voluntary.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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