Meeting the integration goals of the landmark Sheff v. O'Neill case has gotten more challenging since the decision was issued more than 10 years ago.
Hartford schools remain as racially and economically segregated as ever, and many suburban youngsters who are taking advantage of new magnet schools in the city are nonwhite.
Although desegregation should be vigorously pursued, the best interests of the children in city schools should be the primary focus of the discussion between the plaintiffs and the state.
Connecticut lawmakers, for example, foolishly dismiss as a failure the $1.2 billion they have already spent under the Sheff settlement on magnet and charter schools and a highly successful program to have Hartford students attend out-of-district schools.
As a result, the legislature refused this past summer to approve $112 million more to expand the programs in a follow-up agreement hammered out between the Sheff plaintiffs and the state Department of Education.
The plaintiffs returned to court this past week, demanding that the state make good on its assurances.
Magnets, charter schools and the project Open Choice have made strides in closing Connecticut's cavernous achievement gap between nonwhite low-income students and their white suburban counterparts. Any malfunctions in those programs have resulted primarily from the state's unwillingness to fund them adequately.
State officials could add to the number of magnet schools to alleviate the years-long waiting lists. Also, Open Choice is more than 500 Hartford students short of the 1,600 who were to be enrolled in suburban districts under the original compromise settlement. Tying school funding to the number of Hartford students accepted by a district could motivate a town to do better.
Acting in the best interests of children means that, as Sheff returns to court, the state education department should support Hartford Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski's plan to overhaul the district without regard to racial makeup.
Under Mr. Adamowski's reform package, schools would compete for students by offering a wide range of educational options with more demanding academic standards. Four low-performing schools are being shut down and reconstituted.
The students who stand to benefit from Mr. Adamowski's plan today will probably not be around when the Sheff case is finally resolved. They need help now, and it should not be denied over unrealistic quotas.
Indeed, by putting the best interests of the children first giving priority to academic achievement Hartford could in time lure far more of the middle-class suburban students who are envisioned in the Sheff formula.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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