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ACLU, Sheff Attorneys Upset With 'Choose Hartford' Campaign

Vanessa De La Torre

May 03, 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the city to tone down the school system's "Choose Hartford" media campaign, which the group believes undermines the Sheff v. O'Neill court agreement by urging parents to enroll in city schools rather than "gamble" with other options.

In a letter dated Friday and addressed to Corporation Counsel Saundra Kee Borges, Dennis Parker, a lead Sheff attorney and director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, said the advertisements will deter Hartford families from pursuing a spot on the waiting lists for regional magnet schools or suburban districts through the state's Open Choice program.

For city school administrators, who have sought to keep Hartford students from leaving the school system, that's exactly the point. But Parker said such a stance limits the opportunities for families under the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case, and requested that the campaign not portray those options as a "risk."

A recent press release from the school system said parents should "avoid the temptation to gamble with their children's future" and accept a space in the city's own school choice program by the May 15 deadline.

In one TV ad, a city teacher tells the camera, "Your child's education is a right, and not a game. Why risk their future on a lottery and then a waiting list? At Hartford public schools, we ... provide all students with a college-ready education. They don't need to go anywhere else."

"That the city of Hartford would orchestrate this campaign is wholly inexplicable and inappropriate," Parker wrote in the letter, which was also signed by other Sheff attorneys, including Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy in Hartford, and Vincent Southerland and Kimberly Liu of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Kee Borges could not be reached for comment.

On Monday, school spokesman David Medina said the school system prepared the radio, TV and print advertisements that have appeared in both English and Spanish-language media, and that city government officials had no role in it. The campaign coincided with letters Hartford that parents began receiving last week notifying them of their children's city school placement.

In a statement, Superintendent Steven Adamowski said the school system would not change the advertisements, and criticized the letter as an attempt by the ACLU to prolong the Sheff case to the detriment of city schools.

"Hartford parents prefer their children to attend a good school in their own community rather than being bused out of Hartford," said Adamowski, who emphasized the "parent demand" provision of the court agreement. By 2013, the state could satisfy the terms of the Sheff agreement if 80 percent of Hartford students are attending a school of their choice, which can include a neighborhood city school.

"We appreciate the ACLU running one of the 'Choose Hartford' ads on its website," Adamowski said.

"The whole point of the agreement was to assure the parties would cooperate to provide the greatest number of appropriate, educational choices to reduce racial and ethnic isolation," Parker said Monday after reading Adamowski's response. "We don't think that end is served by suggesting that some of the programs are unworthy."

Last week, Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Education Region Council, which runs magnet schools in Greater Hartford, said the advertisements reflected an "open market" competitiveness that he believed will ultimately benefit families.

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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