February 26, 2003
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
The landmark settlement in a school desegregation case against Connecticut survived challenges to its cost and its educational merit as it won final approval in the state legislature Tuesday.
The House of Representatives voted 87-60 to approve the out-of-court settlement in the Sheff vs. O'Neill case, an agreement that includes plans for eight new integrated magnet schools in Hartford over the next four years. Some legislators objected to the estimated $135 million price for the plan, which also calls for expansion of a suburban school choice program for Hartford children, but the House could not muster enough votes to block the agreement.
"It was a good day," said Philip Tegeler, one of the lawyers for plaintiffs in the 14-year-old case, which sought to reduce racial segregation in Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic public schools. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called the vote "a historic victory for Connecticut's children," saying it would help the state make "significant, solid steps toward diversity and perhaps become a national model."
The Senate could still debate the agreement today, but a vote would be no more than symbolic. Under state law, the settlement automatically takes effect unless both houses of the legislature reject it by a three-fifths margin no later than today, the final deadline for a vote. In the House, the most vehement objections came from lawmakers representing towns outside of Hartford. Their opposition to spending millions on renovating or building new schools in the capital city came against the backdrop of a deepening state budget crisis.
The legislature is trying to close a $650 million budget gap this year and a projected $1.5 billion gap next year - a crisis that threatens every area of state supported programs, including public schools. An analysis done for the legislature estimates the settlement would cost $45 million in operating funds and $90 million for construction over four years. "The settlement does little but renovate buildings at the expense of every other town in the state," said state Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.
The agreement calls for at least 30 percent of Hartford's school children to be integrated into magnet schools or suburban schools by 2007, up from about 10 percent now. Tuesday's vote fell largely along partisan lines, with most Democrats supporting the settlement and most Republicans opposing it. "We will leave behind 70 percent of the children," said state Rep. Robert W. Heagney, R-Simsbury. "This isn't a solution. It's simply a patch."
State Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the money would be better spent trying to close an academic achievement gap that finds black and Hispanic students trailing whites in towns such as Norwalk. "Not one nickel of that money is going to help kids read better or write better or compute better," Cafero said. He added that the Sheff case could be the first of many coming from other communities where schools are heavily populated by black and Hispanic schoolchildren. "What's to stop ... parents in towns like Bridgeport or New Haven from bringing the same kind of lawsuit, hoping to achieve the same kind of result?" he said.
The Sheff plaintiffs had gone back to court a year ago, accusing the state of dragging its feet in complying with a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to desegregate Hartford's schools. Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma had been scheduled to make a ruling until the two sides reached a settlement last month.
"I think it's a good first step," state Rep. Kenneth P. Green, D-Hartford, said after Tuesday's vote. He said the settlement marks the first time that a plan includes specific provisions for measuring progress toward racial integration. As for the cost, Green said, "Education is an expensive endeavor. ... If we don't educate our children, what is the cost in prisons? What is the cost in mental health services? In not having a workforce?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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