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Perez May Step Into Sheff Case

Says Neighborhood Schools Key To Equality

By EDMUND H. MAHONY,Courant Staff Writer
January 29, 2006

Mayor Eddie A. Perez said Saturday he might expand the city's role in trying to reduce inequalities between Hartford's school system and those in the suburbs, perhaps by intervening in the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case.

"It may have been a mistake for the city to sit on the sideline while the state and the plaintiffs worked out an agreement," Perez said. "I certainly am not someone who will sit on the sideline."

In an interview after a three-hour meeting of the Sheff Movement at city hall, Perez said he was considering an attempt to become a party in the case.

The Sheff Movement is committed to ameliorating racial, financial and learning inequalities between urban school systems such as Hartford's and those in wealthier suburban and rural towns.

Although there was discussion about school reform in New Haven and Bridgeport, the movement's meeting Saturday focused on Hartford, ground zero in the landmark 1989 lawsuit. Hartford City Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff - mother of Milo Sheff, the lead plaintiff in the desegregation suit - was one of the organizers of the meeting, which she said was called to keep educational reformers focused on the suit's goals.

Horton Sheff said the United States is becoming a nation "of color," and unless there is an equalization of educational opportunity "we will become in effect the new old South Africa."

"What is at stake is the future of our nation," Horton Sheff said.

Martha Stone of the Center for Children's Advocacy and one of the plaintiff's lawyers in the suit, told the gathering that a legal milestone in the Sheff litigation is approaching in 2007 and the plaintiffs will have to think about the improvements they hope to force the state to finance in coming years.

She said the plaintiffs are now in the third year of a four-year agreement with the state to improve educational opportunities for Hartford public school students. Stone and other speakers said many of those new opportunities negotiated in the agreement with the state involve the establishment of themed magnet schools. Stone called progress on the agreement "frustrating."

The Sheff agreement calls for Hartford to open two new magnet schools a year, each with a racially integrated student body of about 600 students. Under the agreement, the city is supposed to have eight new magnet schools and enroll at least 30 percent of its schoolchildren in integrated magnet schools or in suburban schools under a parental choice program by 2007.

But Stone said that in year three of the agreement, Hartford's magnet schools have achieved slightly less than half the target student body figure. What's more, comments by other speakers - supported by research - show that Hartford magnet schools are not meeting goals in attracting white students.

Stone said the Sheff plaintiffs are now talking with state educators about how to pursue the suit's educational goals when the four-year legal agreement expires.

Perez said he wants to focus on "quality" at existing city neighborhood schools as well as continuing to augment the school system with magnet schools. Parents of school-aged Hartford children, as well as educators, said there is intense competition among minority children in Hartford for places at integrated magnet schools. Lotteries typically determine who gets to enroll.

"There is no way that we ought to continue to promote magnet schools when you are walking by a neighborhood school," Perez said.

Horton Sheff said negotiations between Sheff plaintiffs and the state have moved the city toward magnet schools. But she said the goal of the suit has always been to provide equitable educational opportunities - not solely through magnet schools - to the children of poor Hartford families.

After the meeting, Perez, who recently orchestrated his appointment as chairman of the Hartford Board of Education, said he will become more aggressive in trying to make Hartford children's education as good as their suburban counterparts'.

He said he is considering another attack on the state's educational funding formula, as well as efforts to regionalize school funding.

"I'm not going to wait for the state and the Sheff plaintiffs to come up with a solution and then say, `OK, Mr. Mayor. Now you go and figure it out,'" Perez said.

Other speakers sounded as frustrated.

Sam Saylor, a member of the president's council of the Hartford Parent Teacher Organization, said Hartford parents should be allowed to enroll their children in wealthy and predominantly white suburban towns such as Avon and West Hartford. He compared his experience with black families in Little Rock, Ark., who tried to enroll children in cross-city white schools in the period leading to the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

"Our children, like children of 50 years ago, have a right to cross the boundary, to cross the color line," Saylor said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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