10 years after the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation case, Hartford's school system is still failing to fulfill the promise of opportunity
July 16, 2006
Commentary By DENNIS D. PARKER
Ten years have passed since the Connecticut Supreme Court held in Sheff vs. O'Neill that "the needy schoolchildren of Hartford have waited long enough" for the equal educational opportunities denied to them by the overwhelming racial and ethnic isolation in the Hartford metropolitan area.
Recognizing that "every passing day" these children were being denied constitutional rights, the court's opinion was infused with a sense of urgency. It directed the General Assembly and the executive branch of the state government to "put the search for appropriate remedial measures at the top of their respective agendas" so that changes would occur "before another generation of children suffers the consequences of a segregated public school education."
Sadly, the state failed to put it anywhere near the top of its agenda. A Hartford student entering first grade during the year of the court's decision is now a high school junior (assuming that, unlike too many others, the student has not been held back in grade or dropped out). The school system that student entered in 1996 was approximately 95 percent African American and Latino. As an 11th-grader, the student would find the percentages essentially unchanged.
That the situation is largely unaltered after another generation of children has passed through the schools should come as no surprise. On three occasions, plaintiffs have gone to court because they felt it was clear that the state's efforts did not, and were unlikely to, achieve meaningful results.
After one attempt to enforce the order to desegregate in 2002, the state and the plaintiffs entered into an agreement that called for a multiphase approach to ending racial and ethnic isolation.
The agreement was based on three things: Student involvement in programs would be voluntary; the plan would rely on existing programs; and the agreement would be phased in over time.
The first phase, which ends in June 2007, relied on three programs: Project Choice (permitting transfers between Hartford and suburban school systems); regional magnets (operated by the Capitol Region Education Council); and host magnets (operated by the Hartford Board of Education). Significantly, no students would be transported to schools they didn't choose, nor were school district zones redrawn.
Instead, the agreement was designed to place a significant number of Hartford children into desegregated schools both inside and outside of Hartford, benefiting all students by reflecting the rich diversity of the metropolitan area in as many schools as possible. This would be achieved by increasing both the number of magnet schools and the opportunities for Hartford students to attend suburban schools through Project Choice.
Some limited gains will be realized by the time the first phase of the agreement ends. Nine magnet schools will have opened and some of those magnets have improved student performance. Project Choice will also see some gains in enrollment.
Still, the number of openings in the programs falls far short of the number agreed upon - during the first three years of the agreement, more than 600 projected seats in Project Choice did not materialize. Even more dramatically, projected seats in magnet schools fell short by more than 5,000. And many of the magnet schools failed to meet agreed-upon desegregation standards.
The reasons for the shortcomings were both complex and foreseeable. The state's failure to coordinate planning and implementation of magnet programs, the lack of a coordinated and efficient transportation system, the failure to create adequate financial incentives for Hartford and suburban schools to participate fully in the programs, failure to create spaces for Project Choice transfers and a host of other factors undercut the success of each of the programs.
Yet there is cause for optimism. Despite these problems, demand for each program remains strong.
Each year, hundreds of applicants try unsuccessfully to be placed in a magnet school or the choice program. Although each student on a waiting list represents a missed opportunity to meet the needs of individual students and to decrease racial and ethnic isolation, the continued interest demonstrates the viability of the voluntary approach and suggests what greater strides could be made with a well-implemented, comprehensive plan.
The parties are at a pivotal point as they contemplate the next phase of a remedy. If they build upon the strengths while learning from the errors of the first phase, meaningful steps may be made toward fulfilling the Supreme Court's mandate of equal educational opportunity.
That opportunity may have been irretrievably lost for another generation, despite the urgency of the court's call for a remedy. We owe it to future generations to ensure that constitutional violations are addressed and that equal educational opportunities are finally made available to all students.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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