April 17, 2002
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Many of the magnet school openings sought by minority parents in Hartford are going instead to black and Hispanic families from the suburbs, a school desegregation expert testified Tuesday.
As a result, Hartford is not getting the full benefit of a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling ordering the legislature to reduce racial isolation in the city's public schools, Leonard B. Stevens said. Several regional magnet schools "are not operating at peak effectiveness as instruments of desegregation," Stevens testified in the latest hearing in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case.
Stevens, a Florida-based consultant, was the opening witness as plaintiffs appeared before Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma to contend that the state has not moved quickly enough to comply with the court order.
Stevens, who has worked on desegregation cases in Cleveland, Milwaukee and other cities, outlined a plan that could open new spots attractive magnet schools or in suburban schools to thousands more children in Hartford over the next four years. The Stevens plan is the first remedy ever outlined in such specific detail by the plaintiffs in the case, filed 13 years ago to reduce racial isolation in Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic public schools.
The plan avoids controversial measures such as mandatory busing, but urges a gradual expansion of magnet schools and of a voluntary program allowing Hartford children to enroll in predominantly white suburban schools. The plan is the centerpiece of strategy for the Sheff lawyers, who will emphasize its voluntary nature and its similarity to existing state programs as they urge Aurigemma to follow its blueprint.
"You will see how unradical our proposals are," lawyer Wesley W. Horton told Aurigemma during opening arguments.
However, the state, represented in court by Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban, is expected to attack the Stevens plan and to insist that the legislature, not the court, should pursue efforts to fulfill the court desegregation order. "Real, measurable progress has been made," Urban told Aurigemma, citing the legislature's approval of several new magnet schools, the expansion of a voluntary program allowing Hartford children to enroll in suburban schools,
and a state takeover of the troubled Hartford school system.
"Are we satisfied? Of course not. More needs to be done, more is being done, and more will be done," Urban said. But, he added, "We must avoid top-down solutions."
The Sheff case rests on the argument that the state's efforts - particularly the magnet schools and the voluntary urban-suburban transfer program - reach only a small proportion of Hartford students, about 5 percent of the student body. The Steven's plan would raise that figure to 30 percent within four years. In addition to calling for construction of additional magnet schools, Stevens says that the existing magnet schools should reserve more of their openings for Hartford children.
He said, for example, that the Metropolitan Learning Center enrolls more minority students from suburban towns than it does from Hartford even though more than 240 black and Hispanic students from Hartford are on a waiting list for the regional magnet, which moved into a new $32 million building in Bloomfield last fall.
"That's a very slow way" of going about desegregating Hartford, Stevens said.
The plaintiffs offered no specific figures Tuesday on how much their plan would cost, but Stevens said the state could offset some of the cost simply by shifting state aid among districts, allowing the money to follow students to whatever schools they choose to attend. During cross-examination, however, Urban said the plan could affect the way millions of dollars are spent and asked Stevens who would be in charge of how the plan is financed.
"Is there anything in your plan that anybody gets to vote on?" Urban asked.
"The answer is no," Stevens replied. "The plan is in the hands of the court."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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