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Give Suburbs Reason To Attract Hartford Students

By GERALD GUNDERSON

November 21, 2007

The plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neil school integration case have returned to Hartford Superior Court to compel the State of Connecticut to impose better remedies. That is warranted because efforts over the last 11 years have produced almost no progress in promoting racial integration in the Hartford area.

Sad to say, that was to be expected. Neither side had offered any effective methods to implement the Sheff decision and both continue to press for more of the same failed tactics.

Much of the recent testimony focused on one feature of the Sheff settlement, the "open choice" program. It is intended to place minority students in suburban schools but its procedures make it a cruel perversion of any real choice.

State educational officials have hectored suburban school districts to provide spaces for minority students but pay only about 20 percent of the cost of such transfers. Students who are selected from the waiting list are given one opportunity only in a placement dictated by the state officials. There is no choice in any objective sense of the word and politicians who joined in to say the program to date shows that voluntary measures will not work are distorting the case; nothing approaching real choice has been attempted. Compounding the problem, the Sheff plaintiffs have been pushing for the state to lean harder on the suburban school districts, perhaps even making such admissions mandatory.

Suburbanites are willing to help disadvantaged students, which a good number of voluntary programs already demonstrate. But the present "choice" program penalizes those who do most. This is aggravated by state Department of Education rating systems that measure student performance, in effect, further penalizing districts that invite disadvantaged students.

The court now has a good opportunity to cut through this failed approach, replacing it with one that rewards those who improve education. Require the state to send the per student payment it now sends to the Hartford school system to those districts that accept the students. This would encourage schools to attract students and compels all schools to improve their offerings.

The current state appropriation covers about 90 percent of the operating costs of the Hartford schools and it would cover all the operating costs of almost every school district around Hartford. If students could take their pro-rata share to the schools they selected, all students in Hartford would benefit from the competition wonderful news for Hartford residents who for decades have been asked to be patient, waiting for the system to reform itself. It would also be good news for residents of the Hartford region who would now be rewarded for working together to improve education rather than having their interests being pitted against each other.

Gerald Gunderson is the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor at Trinity College and treasurer of the Yankee Institute. He served on the Educational Improvement Panel that drafted the initial recommendations to the General Assembly in response to the Sheff ruling.

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.
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