Five years after the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill decision, the report card on classroom integration would have to say "Incomplete."
The most substantial progress toward meeting that goal has occurred outside the parameters of Sheff vs. O'Neill. Housing patterns have changed in the Hartford region. The number of minority students in suburban towns has increased. In Wethersfield, for example, minorities now make up about 13 percent of the enrollment in town schools.
Still, the fact remains that most students in Connecticut's cities continue to attend segregated schools. In Hartford, more than 95 percent of the students are Hispanic, African American or Asian.
Although there have been promising initiatives - notably magnet schools - the state's response to the Sheff decision has yet to result in substantial school integration. It probably will take many more years for that to happen.
In a series of three editorials beginning today, The Courant will examine models for urban-suburban integration and suggest steps to bring Connecticut closer to compliance with the Supreme Court's directive.
One hindrance in the quest for integration is the absence of a clear vision of what compliance with the Sheff mandate would entail. The court set no goals or timetables. And the plaintiffs did not put forth their own yardstick to measure success.
One certainty is that so-called forced busing, presided over by judges-turned-school-superintendents, will not work. In previous decades, the judiciary's assumption of direct responsibility in running schools often proved to be a disaster, and the federal courts have wisely abandoned it as a remedy. Voluntary solutions are the preferred way. They are likely to be slow moving and expensive, but less costly
in many ways than the busing alternative.
The long and tortuous Sheff journey began in 1989, when the parents of 17 city and suburban children in the Hartford area sued the state. During the trial, witnesses described a Hartford school system on the verge of collapse, with buildings in disrepair, a lack of textbooks and supplies and abysmal student achievement. Educators testified in depressing detail about the twin effects of poverty and racial isolation.
Superior Court Judge Harry Hammer was not swayed, however. He concluded that the state had not created school segregation and, therefore, had no obligation to end it.
After the state Supreme Court reversed Judge Hammer's ruling in 1996, Gov. John G. Rowland and the legislature created the Educational Improvement Panel to find a solution. The panel made many useful suggestions, but at the present rate of implementation, it will take decades to bring about significant school integration.
Meanwhile, the Sheff plaintiffs continue to express frustration. They have returned to court twice, once in 1998 and again last December. After their first trip, Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma ruled that the state was making sufficient progress by promoting magnet schools and other voluntary programs. The current motion will be argued later this year.
A workable voluntary solution must have two major components: vastly improving the quality of Hartford schools and creating a system that gives urban and suburban students far more choice of where they go to school. Even the plaintiffs acknowledge that suburban families will not enroll their children in Hartford schools as long as they view them as educationally deficient and unsafe.
Hartford's schools haven't held great attraction for suburban parents. After many years of failed leadership at the board of education, the state assumed direct responsibility by appointing trustees to run the school system.
The trustees' most important decision was the appointment two years ago of Superintendent Anthony S. Amato, a no-nonsense New York City school administrator. He was given control and told to improve student performance. At the time, Hartford students had the worst test scores in the state. Mr. Amato vowed to change that.
He's kept his promise. The superintendent has emphasized reading and math and helped create a sense of excitement and achievement among teachers and students. Hartford is no longer last in test scores.
Because of his position, Mr. Amato can play a key role in finding a solution to Sheff, a court decision he accepts but does not embrace. With missionary zeal, Mr. Amato is pushing for educational excellence for city schoolchildren. For him, integration is a secondary concern.
The superintendent's emphasis on high-quality education is commendable, but his vision must include learning in an integrated environment.
Teaching students in segregated schools, even if those schools are academically excellent, still deprives them of an integral part of a first-class education. Learning in an integrated environment is necessary to thrive in an ethnically and racially diverse country and world. That's true for students attending mostly white suburban schools as well as for students at mostly minority urban schools.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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