It has now been 12 years since several Hartford and suburban parents alleged in state court that students in the city and region receive an inferior education in segregated public schools in violation of the state Constitution.
It has been five years since the state Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the governor and legislature to come up with a plan to integrate the school systems of Greater Hartford.
Although there has been progress, the core issue is unchanged: Hartford schools remain as racially segregated as ever, even while several suburbs have seen increases in their enrollment of students from minority groups because of changing residential patterns.
The Supreme Court understood that change will not occur overnight. That's why it set no timetable.
Further, a consensus exists that coercion would be unacceptable. So-called forced busing in other parts of the country has not produced desirable results. The best hope for breaking the back of segregation is to sell parents and students on the idea that integration and educational excellence must enter into a partnership. One cannot fully thrive without the other in a diverse society.
Here is what it will take:
A major reason for the molasses-like pace of school integration is a lack of committed leadership. It's as if elected and appointed officials have not read the Supreme Court's opinion. The governor, key legislative and suburban officials, as well as Hartford's mayor, manager, city council, school trustees and superintendent have for the most part ducked the high court's ruling in the Sheff vs. O'Neill case.
Expanded magnet schools and sufficient funding.
Magnet schools in Greater Hartford are run by the Capitol Region Education Council, which alerted legislators in the spring that it faced a $5.6 million deficit for the fiscal year that began July 1. As CREC noted, it makes little sense for the state to have spent $200 million to build magnets, but then scrimp on operating money. In the recently adopted state budget, the General Assembly appropriated $2.8 million to offset a portion of the deficit.
In a letter to legislative leaders, CREC had asked a compelling question: "Is Connecticut committed to magnets as a means to incite regional cooperation, improve quality, extend choice, enrich programs and achieve a widely accepted response to Sheff vs. O'Neill?"
Under the current funding formula, the state gives CREC an average of $4,700 per student, less than half of what it costs to educate each child. Towns must pay another $2,000 for every student they send to a magnet school. Some towns have refused to participate because they don't want to pay.
Towns shouldn't have the option of refusing to send students who want to attend the schools. To lessen the burden on individual towns, however, the amount they are required to pay should be capped at $1,000 per student.
It costs more than $10,000 per year to educate each magnet school enrollee. The state, which has primary responsibility for implementing Sheff, should pay 90 percent of that cost.
Expansion of the Open Choice program, which is described in the editorial below.
Continued efforts to improve Hartford schools.
Earlier this year, two Hartford schools, Simpson-Waverly and Kennelly, became the first urban elementary schools in the state to win accreditation, after a rigorous two-year review. Standardized test scores at both schools have risen significantly in recent years.
Increased funding for inter-district programs.
State Education Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi had requested $14.7 million for the fiscal year that began July 1 for a variety of programs that bring city and suburban students together for activities in science, music and other fields. Gov. John G. Rowland slashed more than $2 million from the request, although the legislature restored a small portion of the money.
Mr. Sergi deserves credit for wanting to expand these programs so they eventually will accommodate half the state's 270,000 elementary and high school students. Although the exchange visits are not an alternative to magnets and school integration, they are a worthwhile piece of a broader response to Sheff.
Although the Sheff decision was directed at Greater Hartford, it has implications for cities across the state that are not under court order. Mr. Sergi is on the right track by responding to racial isolation statewide.
An Attack on Hartford's social ills.
Hartford is one of the nation's poorest cities and is surrounded by some of the state's wealthiest communities. Hartford also has one of the highest rates of teen births in the nation, as well as the country's highest percentage of unmarried mothers.
As numerous witnesses in the Sheff lawsuit testified, social factors involving unstable families and unsafe neighborhoods have a profound effect on school achievement.
It would be a dangerous illusion, therefore, to think that the answer to Sheff lies only in classrooms. Urban schools will become integrated only as part of a package that includes vibrant, safe, integrated neighborhoods of families drawn by good schools and an array of cultural and civic attractions.
The challenges in honoring the court's broad mandate in Sheff vs. O'Neill are huge. But so is the potential for payoffs. The nation's wealthiest state should aspire to become the most successful in providing a first-class education in integrated classrooms.
No one should lose sight of the goal - and value - of having children of all races learning together in excellent schools. It can be done. It must be done.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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