After dragging out the Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case for 14 years, the state agreed in 2003 to finance a bunch of host magnet schools in Hartford, each with its own curriculum specialty.
State education officials and the plaintiffs trusted that white suburbanites would be so impressed with the quality of education in the new buildings that they would drop everything and enroll their children there. Hartford has since built an unprecedented seven schools. Two more are under construction. A third breaks ground in July. And two, Pathways and Capital Preparatory, have yet to find suitable building sites.
Whites have generally stayed away from them.
To hear tell, you'd think the world was ending.
The settlement anticipated a white enrollment of 26 percent by now. But of the 3,565 students registered in Hartford magnets in 2006, only 13 percent were white. Magnet schools in the North End are almost 100 percent nonwhite.
The eight magnets run by the state-funded Capitol Region Education Council do better. CREC's 2,801 students were 43 percent white in 2006. Of course, half of the CREC schools are in the suburbs. And the four in Hartford sit in the secure surroundings of the Learning Corridor and the University of Hartford, where exposure to nearby residents is quite limited.
White parents offer many plausible explanations for keeping their children away from Hartford magnets. Transportation is poor. The kids miss their friends. Sports programs aren't adequate. School construction isn't moving fast enough and - in their minds - Hartford is crime-ridden.
Strangely enough, nonwhite suburbanites don't share those concerns. They register their children at twice the rate that whites do. At last count, two-thirds of the 1,417 suburban students in city magnets were nonwhite, which says as much about suburban schools as it does about the magnets.
Never has it been hinted that whites are staying away because they believe low-income blacks and Latinos are lesser forms of human life. As far as anyone knows, there are no bigots in the blue state of Connecticut. Racial disparities, if you can believe it, happen unintentionally.
Connecticut, for example, is one of only three states that treats 16- and 17-year-old criminal offenders as adults. Of the 8,141 people in that age group who were arrested in 2006, 4,810 - about 60 percent - were white. Of the 440 who went to jail, 261 - about 60 percent - were nonwhite.
Nobody knows how it happens or who's responsible.
Connecticut also went to court to avoid complying with the federal No Child Left Behind law that proposes to close the state's worst-in-the-nation learning gap between white and nonwhite students. The state argued that, although it dearly wants to close the gap, it shouldn't have to pay for any portion of No Child.
And so it goes.
Sheff v. O'Neill, in its own way, reinforces inequality. The case is based on the principle that inducing privileged white kids to hang out in a classroom with underprivileged dark kids improves the underprivileged dark kids.
Sheff v. O'Neill never entertains the idea that the opposite could be true - that mingling with poor nonwhites enriches the lives of advantaged white children - which might be a greater incentive for them to attend a city magnet.
The lawsuit also aimed way too high in seeking to end racial and socioeconomic isolation in Hartford schools. Let's face it. Isolation based on skin color and wealth has existed at least since the first British settlers arrived in Jamestown.
One lawsuit is hardly going erase centuries of social conditioning. All is not lost, however.
Sheff v. O'Neill guaranteed Hartford children pleasant new learning environments; higher, rigorous expectations for success; and resources to achieve that goal. Students and their families should take full advantage of the opportunity. Connecticut's neglectful track record in this area suggests that they shouldn't count on it happening again without another big lawsuit.
Some speculate that whites will gravitate to Hartford magnets as the schools burnish longer track records of excellence. That's heartwarming.
But getting a better education now is much more important than ending racial and economic isolation. If whites come, they come. If they don't, let it be their loss.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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