January 28, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Milo Sheff was 10 when he became a symbol of the legal battle for racial integration in Hartford's public schools. On Saturday, the day he turned 28, supporters issued a failing report card on progress so far.
Although they won a court order in 1996 requiring the state to alleviate racial isolation in the mostly black and Hispanic public schools in Hartford, backers of the Sheff vs. O'Neill case said efforts are falling far short of goals.
"It took us 18 years to get here, and it's probably going to take a few more years to get where we want to be," city Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff, Milo's mother, told about 50 supporters who met at city hall Saturday morning.
Organizers of the meeting called for a lobbying effort to urge state lawmakers to step up progress toward the goals of a 2003 court-approved settlement of the case.
That four-year agreement, calling for new racially integrated magnet schools and an expansion of a program allowing Hartford children to enroll in suburban schools, will fall far short of its goals by the time it expires this summer.
The plaintiffs in the Sheff case are in negotiations with state officials to extend the agreement, but a report at Saturday's meeting said the state must come up with substantial increases in funding for magnet schools, busing and school choice programs to increase the pace of integration.
In what they called a "Sheff Movement Report Card," supporters gave a failing grade to the state for its financial support at inter-district magnet schools, saying the $6,500 per pupil state allotment falls far short of actual costs, placing an additional burden on towns that pay tuition to send students to magnet schools and putting those schools in a financial crunch.
In addition, the report gave the state a failing grade for its busing subsidy for inter-district magnet schools, saying the $1,300 per student annual figure is as much as $450 below the actual cost.
Later Saturday, one key legislator disputed the conclusions of the report.
"To say we should get a failing grade - I don't think that's fair at all," said state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden. In opening new magnet schools under the Sheff agreement, "the state is pretty much on track," he said.
Since the Sheff agreement in 2003, Hartford has opened or reclassified nine schools as magnets, but some of those schools remain almost entirely black and Hispanic.
Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, said racial isolation cannot be solved by schools alone but is the result of "housing, jobs, language barriers, a whole host of demographic issues." Those issues, he said, are "the reason for that isolation to be as persistent now as it was when the [Sheff] case was brought."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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