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Racial Balance Remains An Issue

State Supreme Court To Review New Plan To Integrate Schools

April 15, 2002
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

When civil rights activists accuse the state in court this week of failing to comply with a school desegregation order, they will cite the plight of parents like Hartford's Shari Miller.

Miller wants her daughter, Chelsea, who turns 5 this week, to attend kindergarten at the racially integrated University of Hartford Magnet School this fall, but Chelsea's chances are remote.

In the six years since the state Supreme Court ordered the legislature to reduce racial isolation in Hartford's public schools, Connecticut has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new magnet schools, but those schools remain out of reach for many, including Chelsea.

The $21.5 million university magnet school, which opened last year, has nearly 1,700 applicants for fewer than 50 openings next fall. Chelsea, who is biracial, is on a waiting list.

"I don't anticipate her getting in this year," Shari Miller said. "Probably not next year, either."

When plaintiffs in the historic Sheff vs. O'Neill case return to court Tuesday, they will present a plan that could open new spots in attractive magnet schools or in suburban schools to thousands more children in Hartford. Miller is among the witnesses expected to testify in the case.

The new plan - relying on strictly voluntary choices for parents - is the first remedy ever outlined in such detail by plaintiffs in the case, which was filed 13 years ago to reduce segregation in Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic public schools.

The plan avoids controversial measures such as mandatory busing or reconfiguration of urban-suburban school district boundary lines. Instead, it proposes a vast increase in the number of children moving voluntarily between Hartford and its predominantly white suburbs.

Most magnet schools have long waiting lists, leaving families in Hartford and its suburbs to hope their children will be selected in annual lotteries.

The Sheff plan would be the most ambitious school choice program ever tried in Connecticut, requiring the creation of several new magnet schools - and a price tag reaching into the tens of millions of dollars.

The plan calls for more money and sets enrollment goals, but its central approach - the expansion of magnet schools and of a voluntary program allowing Hartford children to enroll in suburban schools - is the same path the state already has begun.

"Now the argument is more about the speed and the degree and the resources rather than the nature of the solution," said state Education Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi.

Whether the Sheff proposal will become part of a court order is a central question as hearings begin Tuesday in New Britain Superior Court before Judge Julia L. Aurigemma. She is the same judge who ruled two years ago that the state was proceeding properly and needed more time to comply with the state Supreme Court order.

Sergi and other state officials again are expected to testify that the state is meeting its obligation with the millions of dollars it has spent on magnet schools, the voluntary urban-suburban choice program, and various after-school and summer programs to reduce segregation.

Though the plaintiffs' plan relies on the kind of voluntary approaches already used by the state, many state lawmakers vehemently oppose the prospect of direct intervention by the courts.

"I continue to believe the court would be reluctant - as Connecticut courts have always been reluctant - to engage in the process of legislating a remedy," said state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin B. Sullivan, D-West Hartford.

House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, said he favors an expansion of school choice programs "to create opportunities for all kids, but particularly for kids in urban schools." But, he added, "I think the legislature should be the one making the decision - not the court."

The hearings are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday and are expected to run at least two weeks. A ruling could be months away. Whatever the outcome, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.

Just under 1,200 black and Hispanic children, or roughly 5 percent of Hartford's student body, now attend racially integrated magnet schools or suburban schools. The Sheff plan would increase the number gradually to about 6,900, or 30 percent, by the 2005-06 school year.

The four-year plan was created by Leonard B. Stevens, a national consultant who has worked on desegregation cases in Cleveland, Milwaukee and several other school systems over the past 25 years.

Stevens' proposal also calls for:

  • Full state funding of regional magnet schools. Those schools now rely on a combination of state funds and tuition from participating local school districts. Magnet school officials say they are running deficits under the existing funding arrangement.
  • Additional money to help Hartford convert several of its public schools to magnets designed to enroll city and suburban children.
  • A provision allowing parents, not school districts, to determine who gets into magnet schools or the urban-suburban choice program. Under current rules, suburban districts can decide whether they have room to accept city students and whether they will provide tuition for their own students to attend magnet schools.

The stakes in the Sheff case are high - $87 million in construction costs alone, by one estimate - as the legislature and Gov. John G. Rowland struggle with budget constraints. No solution is expected before Chelsea Miller starts kindergarten in the fall.

Shari Miller said she missed a deadline to apply for the Montessori Magnet School in Hartford but has put her daughter's name into lotteries for another magnet school and for the city-suburban choice program. She is thinking, too, about a parochial school, but the tuition would be steep, she said. If those options are unavailable, Chelsea will attend Hartford's Batchelder School in her neighborhood even though her mother is concerned about class sizes, the curriculum and the school's overwhelming racial imbalance.

Members of minority groups accounted for 94 percent of Batchelder's students this year, up from 90 percent in 1996, the year of the state Supreme Court 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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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