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A Smarter Alternative To New Magnet Schools

Why Not Fill Empty Seats In Suburban Schools First?


February 07, 2010

Children in Hartford deserve a good education. And taxpayers deserve to have their money used wisely. Clearly we can do both, but not by building new magnet schools when we have empty capacity in existing public schools. It's time for the state to use more common sense and fewer common cents.

After 20 years and spending more than $1.5 billion, Connecticut has made little progress toward the very worthy goals of the Sheff v. O'Neill settlement, which requires that Hartford's children have equal educational opportunities through access to integrated schools. In the latest effort to make progress, the state is pursuing a path of the least bang for the biggest buck by building new magnet schools in the suburbs for Hartford and suburban children.

At a time when we are experiencing record deficits, along with declining enrollment in many suburban schools, why would we construct new, duplicative schools?

Since Hartford's magnet schools have not attracted enough white suburban kids to result in an adequately integrated enrollment, the latest plan is to get more of Hartford's children to attend schools in the suburbs.

Unfortunately, suburban public schools have historically limited the number of Hartford children they are willing to take through the Open Choice program, because they are paid so little by the state for each child they take. Simsbury, for example, gets $3,040 per student, while the average cost to educate a student in Simsbury is $12,181.

If suburban school systems such as Simsbury's were paid even half their actual costs, which is enough to cover their marginal variable costs, they would be willing to take more Hartford children, eliminating the need to build duplicative schools while suburban desks sit empty.

As a result of underfunding Open Choice, we are now embarking on a much more costly plan to build new magnet schools in the suburbs to meet the goals of the Sheff settlement.

The Capitol Region Education Council, which administers magnet schools in the Hartford area, recently purchased a building in Simsbury for $850,000 to open a second campus of a magnet school located in Avon. This funding was approved by the State Bond Commission. Furthermore, the current state plan calls for the council to seek an additional $30 million in state bond funds to build a new facility, which would enable them to consolidate the existing Avon and the new Simsbury school into one location for approximately 450 children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

The construction of this new, duplicative school (and other planned magnets like it) is wasteful and unnecessary. The Open Choice program is a much less expensive option, which can equally achieve the goals of Sheff.

The state could more than double the current reimbursement to suburban public schools through the Open Choice program and still spend just over half the cost of building and operating the proposed magnet school for Simsbury and Avon. Not only would the state save $11,312 per student, but Simsbury would also save more than $4,600 (the tuition it pays for every Simsbury student who attends a magnet school) if they remained in the town's schools, rather than attending the proposed magnet school.

In addition, Hartford children could get a quality education in suburbs like Simsbury more quickly if they attend existing public schools, rather than waiting for new magnet schools to be built.

Working together, the legislature and the administration can ensure the best fiscal and educational outcomes by diverting magnet school funding to the Open Choice program. There's no better time to save public funds or to invest in educating our children. It's just common sense.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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