State Official Says Chronic Shortage Of Money Works Against `Open Choice' Program
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, Courant Staff Writer
November 08, 2007
Inadequate state funding has forced some Hartford elementary students to ride up to two hours each way daily to reach suburban schools they've opted to attend as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan, the head of a nonprofit group testified Wednesday.
The chronic shortfall makes it difficult to reach integration goals set by the landmark Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit, Bruce Douglas, director of the Capitol Region Education Council, said at the second day of court hearings on desegregation efforts and programs.
CREC starts out each school year projecting multimillion-dollar deficits for its eight inter-district magnet schools and must lobby for adequate state funding, said Douglas, whose agency also oversees the "Open Choice" program that enrolls Hartford students in suburban school.
"There was no strategic plan. There was insufficient funding to carry out the mission," Douglas said.
At times, Douglas said, the lack of transportation funding for the choice program has been so critical that he feared he'd run out of money for buses. He called the state Department of Education, pleading for money.
But those calls were not always returned in a timely fashion, he said, despite the state Supreme Court's direction to the legislature and state officials that desegregation be on the top of their agendas.
On the opening day of testimony Tuesday, the plaintiffs' witnesses recommended a plan to double the number of students attending suburban schools and to create more magnet schools in Hartford.
On Wednesday, Douglas said the state must provide more funds to attract those students and ensure their success. That means enough money so students will spend no more than 45 minutes on a bus each way and so monitors can ride the buses with students to provide order, he said. Transportation also must be provided to city parents who want to go to the school for conferences, meetings and events, he said.
The program should pay for tutors to help students catch up with their suburban peers and do homework, summer school, all-day kindergarten, social workers and behavioral specialists who can help students make the transition from their home schools, he said during hours of testimony.
To encourage districts to invite more city students, Douglas said, the state should pay more than $2,500 toward each child's education and transfer students' scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test should be evaluated for the progress they make each year rather than for their actual scores.
When an impoverished student in the sixth grade transfers from Hartford to a suburban school and is reading at the second-grade level, there should not be an expectation that the student will function on grade level for at least four years, Douglas said. Those students need individual education plans, he said, and the goal should be proficient performance on the statewide test administered in 10th grade.
William Magnotta, director of the magnet schools program, said in an interview that Hartford-area superintendents have expressed concern about enrolling Hartford students in their schools and then facing sanctions if their mastery test scores are low. Magnotta is expected to testify as a state's witness later in the week.
There are 206 Hartford students on a waiting list to enroll in suburban schools while CREC magnet schools have a waiting list of 6,700 students. With an aggressive marketing campaign, Douglas said, the number of students asking for space in suburban schools would increase.
Another witness for the plaintiffs, Susan Uchitelle, who oversaw a program in St. Louis, said the oversight by a court and the existence of a strategic plan with dates and specific goals were critical for success.
The central features of a successful voluntary integration plan, she said, include sufficient funding for districts that receive transfer students from the city; good transportation with short bus rides; social workers to work with city students in the suburbs; training for teachers and an independent organization that isn't accountable to school districts to oversee implementation and report to the court.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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