A decade after the state Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools across Greater Hartford in the landmark Sheff v. O'Neill case, the goal of integration remains elusive.
Magnet schools, the cornerstone of the state's plan to bring together white children and children of color using voluntary incentives, have fallen short. Hartford's schools still have a population that is predominantly black, Hispanic and poor.
Now, as the Sheff plaintiffs head back to court Tuesday to demand the state make good on its assurances, advocates of integration are facing increasing skepticism on the part of both state lawmakers and city officials over both the cost - and value - of continuing down the same path.
Tensions that have long remain hidden are now erupting, opening up a new and potentially contentious chapter in the effort to desegregate schools in and around Hartford.
"It's breaking out in the open now," said John Brittain, a former Sheff lawyer. "The current spat with the Hartford school system exposes the fragility of the infrastructure of the Sheff v. O'Neill process."
Lawyers for the Sheff plaintiffs declined to say what they will seek in court. The latest effort at compromise between the state and the plaintiffs - which failed to win legislative approval - called for the state to spend $112 million over the next five years to expand the array of magnet, charter and vocational-technical schools.
But one attorney said now that the issue is heading back to court, the plaintiffs won't be constrained by the compromises that they have agreed to in the past.
"There's new thinking we'll be presenting at the trial," said Matthew Colangelo, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who is representing the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit.
"We're saying it's been 11 years and not enough progress has been made and we think it's time for the court to get involved."
The question of whether the city's schools must be desegregated was settled by a state Supreme Court order in 1996, though the court left it to the Sheff plaintiffs and the state to figure out how to do it.
The state and the plaintiffs finally reached an agreement on a plan in 2003, and it was left largely to Hartford to implement its terms by building magnet schools and sending students to suburban schools through the state's "Open Choice" program.
The guiding principle of those efforts has been to make desegregation voluntary - sidestepping the politically explosive prospect of forcibly moving children from one school to another.
But the effectiveness of this approach is now being questioned.
"The notion that we're going to get a better result by voluntary programs is ridiculous," said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee. "We need to shift away from the model of remedy that the state has been pursuing for years. The district is as racially isolated today as it was 10 years ago. It suggests you need to do something different."
Gaffey advocates giving the education commissioner more statutory authority to enforce broad participation by area towns.
The best way to satisfy the court order, he said, probably would be to expand the Open Choice program, through which Hartford students enroll in suburban schools. This would give the commissioner power to order reluctant towns to open their doors to more students from Hartford.
"How open Open Choice is, is really debatable," Gaffey said, conceding that towns won't like being strong-armed into admitting more Hartford kids and that getting any major changes through the General Assembly would be difficult.
Hartford School Superintendent Steven Adamowski bluntly told the State Board of Education recently that it isn't fair Hartford has borne the brunt of making integration happen, while suburban participation remains optional.
As it stands, the state is withholding $4.6 million from the city-run magnet schools for failing to enroll enough white students, and won't release that money until the city submits a plan outlining its plan for a remedy. If the state doesn't release the money, Adamowski said, the district will have to begin laying off staff at the four magnet schools that don't meet the quota.
Adamowski told the State Board of Education and the education commissioner that a regional approach is needed. He strongly encouraged them to create a system of rewards and punishments to get the region's many "fiefdoms" to work with Hartford in developing models for integrated schools that are different from the traditional magnet school model.
But while there are growing questions about the effectiveness of voluntary solutions, the state will likely argue in court against involuntary participation, said Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan. "This state has historically and fervently relied on local control," he said.
That devotion aside, he said, programs that are entered into voluntarily are more likely to work.
"People will invest more of their energy and time to carry it out," McQuillan said. "Let's try voluntary measures now. If that fails then we may have to take more drastic measures that people may not want."
McQuillan said he wants to expand the Open Choice program and to press for the development of magnet schools in the suburbs.
He conceded that the assumption that suburban youngsters would be drawn to magnet schools run by Hartford was mistaken. By locating schools in the suburbs, officials said, the state could address the perception of some parents that Hartford schools are not safe.
"Suburban parents have some trepidation about sending their children into the inner city. Whether it's perceived or accurate, we are aware of it," said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "Having several schools in suburban communities as a choice will give an opportunity to allay those concerns."
McQuillan said he thinks that six or seven magnet schools run by suburban towns could work, focusing on young children in grades pre-K through 3. Parents who would otherwise pay to send their preschool-aged children to day care would find the offer of an all-day public preschool school program particularly enticing, McQuillan said.
Hartford Pulls Back
Beyond the question of how to make desegregation happen is a broader problem: Officials are growing more vocal about the burden Sheff presents - and even questioning the value of its goals.
In a presentation to the State Board of Education on ways Hartford is working to close the achievement gap between urban and suburban children, Adamowski questioned the very premise of the Sheff lawsuit.
"There is no research to suggest that minority students will do better by sitting next to a white student," he said.
The original lawsuit, filed in 1989, asserted that the racial segregation of Hartford schools violates the state's constitution. Adamowski's comment resonated with some, including Hartford school board member Andrea Comer, who believes it is demeaning to assume that children of color need to share a classroom with white students in order to learn well.
But it drew a sharp response from some advocates of desegregation.
"We're disappointed that it's 2007 and the superintendent wants to debate whether it is a bad thing for Hartford's minority children to be taught in racially segregated schools," Colangelo said.
"As a social science matter, the answer has been clear for decades," Colangelo said. As a legal matter, he said, the case was settled years ago.
In his presentation to the state board, Adamowski outlined a strategy for improving the city's schools that does not specifically address the court's order, although the Hartford school board's new policy for redesigning failing schools directs the superintendent to "give consideration" to the Sheff goals of reducing racial and economic isolation.
"This is high stakes for the state," Murphy said. "The superintendent's reform package has not connected Sheff with the strategies for improvement. We've got to find some common ground."
In the past, Hartford's superintendents have publicly embraced the lead position in fulfilling the requirements of the Sheff lawsuit, even if they grumbled behind the scenes about cost. Adamowski's public arm's-length posture from both the state and the tenets of the court order represent a dramatic shift in the landscape.
Lawmakers are also asking questions about the direction of desegregation efforts.
Legislative leaders this summer didn't put the $112 million plan to expand magnets up for a vote in part because they questioned the effectiveness of the approach, and in part because Hartford's mayor and superintendent urged rejection until the state develops a more comprehensive plan to integrate schools.
On the eve of the case's return to court, Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school board, lobbed his pitch into the arena, saying that while the city remains committed to the Sheff goals, the state shouldn't dump the burden on Hartford.
"The state wants to monitor us and have us implement Sheff. We want them to implement Sheff and we will assist them," Perez said. "It can't just be Hartford's burden."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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