Controversial though it may have been, a comment by Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski at a state Board of Education meeting last week points to an underlying change in the nature of the Sheff v. O'Neill dilemma.
In a discussion about quotas of white children in Hartford's host magnet schools, Mr. Adamowski told state officials that "there is no research to suggest that minority students will do better by sitting next to a white student."
The context was money. The state has withheld operating funds for four of the city's host magnet schools because they are not in compliance with the requirement that no more than 75 percent of a student body be made up of racial minorities. (For schools in operation before 2005, the requirement is no more than 80 percent of students from the same district.)
Hartford can get the funds - about $1 million per school - if it files an "enrollment management plan" for each school explaining how it plans to bolster the school and non-minority enrollment. Mr. Adamowski has signaled that he wants to cooperate with the state, so presumably he will file the paperwork and get the funds.
The broader question some critics raised is whether Mr. Adamowski is settling for some variation of "separate but equal." His comment brought a sharp response from desegregation advocates, who aver that minorities and whites benefit from integrated classrooms. Indeed, most people, Mr. Adamowski clearly included, see great value in racially integrated schools.
But Mr. Adamowski said in a later interview that research shows economic integration - a child from an affluent family sitting next to a child from a poor family - results in better learning.
That opportunity has been lost at many Hartford schools.
The Sheff case was filed in 1989 to reduce both racial and economic segregation in Hartford schools. Since then, large numbers of middle-class African American and Latino children have moved to suburban schools, yet Hartford's schools remain overwhelmingly minority. That suggests that poorer minority children are being left behind.
The focus of resolving the Sheff case has been on racial balance. Almost nothing is said of economic integration, yet that seems to be an increasing part of the problem.
Public policy should embrace both challenges. The interdistrict magnet schools should be going after suburban kids, white and minority.
Alan Hadad, dean of magnet schools at the University of Hartford, persuasively argues that admission requirements instead of admission lotteries would draw more bright suburban kids to Hartford. A new state law that allows regional magnet schools to fill vacancies with students from towns that do not have formal partnerships with the magnets should also bring more white kids to the magnet schools.
On the economic front, the state should stop building so much low-income housing in Hartford, and should move more state jobs into the city. Perhaps we should stop looking at schools in isolation.
The magnet schools have left Hartford with a two-tiered school system that Mr. Adamowski rightly believes must end. He has proposed a bold program to turn all city schools into schools of choice. The state should support this effort, and apparently does. The best of these schools will draw students of all hues. If a school is "separate but better," it won't stay that way for long.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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