Education is richer when children learn together and from each other, especially if they come from diverse backgrounds. That is common sense, but it is also the promise behind Sheff v. O'Neill, the landmark Connecticut court decision that called upon the state to end racial isolation in the Hartford schools.
The suit is nearly 20 years old, and some would say that the state's response has been a miserable failure. The Hartford schools are no less segregated than when the suit was filed in 1989. Remedies such as magnet schools have not enticed enough suburban students to the city. Too few minorities from Hartford attend classes in the suburbs. Quotas set out in the original agreement have fallen far short of the mark. The entire process has been painfully slow.
But the issue is more complicated than fulfilling classroom quotas. Conditions that led to the lawsuit had more to do with economics than with race. Poverty has kept Hartford students from achieving success on a par with more affluent suburbanites. Test scores are consistently correlated to income.
Education is a way out of poverty. And that is why it is important to keep trying to expand opportunities so that all children, urban and suburban, can broaden their horizons.
The latest agreement forged to comply with the state Supreme Court's Sheff ruling is a thoughtful document that builds on positive steps that have made a difference, such as the establishment of intra-district schools with specialized curriculums designed to attract a diverse student body. Racial balance benchmarks set in 2003 were not met, but test scores of city children who attend Sheff-related schools are significantly better.
The five-year blueprint awaiting legislative approval focuses on expanding opportunities for Hartford children to enter suburban schools, including preschools, technical high schools and regional magnets. It includes incentives to inspire the 22 suburban towns in Greater Hartford to build magnet schools and to expand the number of city students enrolled via the Open Choice program, which has a waiting list.
The state education commissioner has been meeting with suburban school districts to enlist their voluntary participation, a responsibility stipulated in the agreement. It also gives the commissioner the authority to conduct an independent review of available space for Open Choice students if he believes a district is underreporting its capacity. Surely there's room in suburban schools for more than 1,000 city kids.
The new agreement offers a timetable for reasonable progress. It puts the emphasis where it belongs, on students' desires rather than simply on numbers. It requires that 80 percent of Hartford students who wish to enroll in an intra-district magnet, charter or suburban school be accommodated by 2013. Practical improvements, such as a central office for coordinating enrollment and a streamlined application process, should encourage students to take advantage of choices when they may have been daunted in the past by rejection or red tape.
If legislators fail to act on this document this session, it will be adopted automatically. But a resounding vote of approval will affirm their commitment to this groundbreaking effort to provide high-quality, integrated education for all.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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