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Proposed Changes In School 'Open Choice' Program Criticized


March 11, 2009

Linda Nelson of Hartford is used to the "family-like" relationship she has with staff at the Capitol Region Education Council.

Nelson's two granddaughters attend suburban schools through the Capitol Region Open Choice program, administered by CREC. But Nelson is worried that she'll have to start over with staff members from the state Department of Education: Under Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget proposal, the state would take over administration of the open choice program, which allows Hartford students to attend suburban schools and vice-versa.

"I doubt very seriously that the state, or any other agency, can continue the dedicated work that the staff at our CREC choice program has worked so hard to provide," Nelson said in testimony before the legislature's education committee Monday.

But the state feels otherwise.

"We're disappointed with the progress," said Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the state's Office of Policy and Management.

Beckham said that although CREC does good work, the state wants more control over the open choice program to try to increase the number of students enrolled. Under the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation agreement, the state has to meet benchmarks for how many Hartford minority students attend racially integrated schools. Officials want to increase the number of students enrolled in open choice from about 1,100 to 3,000 to help meet those benchmarks.

"To some degree, I can see OPM's perspective on this, because CREC doesn't have the authority to mandate ... that districts provide more seats," said Bruce E. Douglas, CREC's executive director.

Some Sheff advocates, like Philip Tegeler, the staff coordinator for the Sheff Movement Coalition, said the change would hurt the desegregation efforts.

"At a time when the state needs to rapidly expand the project choice program, it makes absolutely no sense to dismantle the staff and programs that have made [it] a success," Tegeler wrote in testimony to the education committee.

Beckham said the transition, if approved by the legislature, would take place for the 2010-11 school year. As a developing proposal, he said, it's not clear which duties the state would take over. CREC handles transportation, enrollment and interaction with suburban districts and the students placed there.

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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