The state Department of Education is asking suburban school districts to add 660 classroom seats for Hartford students next year in an effort to reach higher integration benchmarks under the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation ruling.
But some districts are saying they just can't afford to do so, and that could jeopardize the state's ability to comply with the Sheff ruling.
"We have simply reached the breaking point," Bristol Superintendent Philip Streifer said last week. "We are not opposed to the Sheff issue; we simply can no longer afford to fund additional state mandates without adequate financial support."
Districts that accept Hartford students through Open Choice receive $2,500 per pupil. State Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan has asked Gov. M. Jodi Rell to increase that funding. Rell's budget proposal kept the Open Choice per-pupil funding level with last year.
Under McQuillan's proposal, districts that participate in Open Choice would receive a base grant of $35,000 to $75,000. And they could get more per-pupil funding -- up to $6,000 -- depending on the percentage of Hartford students in the school district. Under the Sheff agreement, 27 percent of Hartford's minority students must attend an integrated school by the start of the 2009-10 school year; by 2012-13, that goal rises to 41 percent.
Expanding Open Choice is one part of a larger plan to reach those goals. The state also wants to diversify all magnet schools, and increase their general enrollment. Also, attendance at technical high schools will now be counted toward meeting the Sheff goals.
In addition to keeping Open Choice funding level, Rell also kept funding for magnet school tuition the same. And, because of a change in state law, school districts are no longer allowed to limit the number of students for whom they pay magnet school tuition. Some districts are worried that they will no longer be able to afford to pay for all the students who want to attend magnet schools.
"It's not really just the Hartford choice component," said Ellington Superintendent Stephen Cullinan. "It's the corollary of that and the magnet school program. ... My concern is if I'm able to afford the outgoing tuition."
The state is banking on the expanded Open Choice program as a more cost-effective way to reach the Sheff benchmarks than building new schools. But the budget crunch has Sheff advocates concerned.
"For the first time ever, in the last eight months, we felt like there was tremendous progress," said Martha Stone, one of the Sheff plaintiffs' attorneys. "And we just don't want it to fall off because of the budget constraints, because that would really be ignoring a court mandate."
The legislature still must approve Rell's budget, and several education groups have been lobbying for more Sheff funding to be included.
"We're gravely concerned that the governor's budget impedes the [Sheff] trajectory, because the state was in the position to reach the 27 percent benchmark," Stone said.
The state wants to increase the number of Open Choice students in suburban schools from 1,100 now to 2,500 by 2012-13. To reach that goal, the state Department of Education has asked school districts to provide seats for Hartford students equal to 3 percent of their total enrollment.
Department officials conducted enrollment surveys in Open Choice districts and then used their findings to fine-tune their student requests by number and grade level. But the response from districts has been mixed.
Bristol said that it would not increase its participation levels next year. Other districts have said they could take additional students, but not as many as the state Department of Education is suggesting. Some districts have agreed to meet the state's goals, but said they might need flexibility.
Cullinan said that Ellington is willing to take 20 more students next year, but not in the grades the state requested. "When I look at my population, I want to put students where we have room, and where it makes educational sense to do so," Cullinan said.
The state has asked some districts to enroll more than twice the number of Hartford students they currently have. Bristol was asked to add 85 students, bringing the total to 105. And Glastonbury was asked to add 56; it now has 46 Open Choice students.
"This is a difficult year for all schools," said Glastonbury Superintendent Alan Bookman. "You see many schools are having major cutbacks in funding, and in the amount of staff they'll have. My expectation is that we would certainly not be able to add 56 students."
Other districts are starting to take Open Choice students for the first time. Portland, for example, approved a plan to enroll Open Choice students last week.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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