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Weak Economy May Threaten School Integration Financial Incentives

ECONOMY IN CRISIS

DON STACOM

December 01, 2008

The ongoing economic crisis could threaten a proposal to dramatically boost the state's payouts to suburban schools that agree to accept students from Hartford.

State education administrators want $10 million during the next two years to induce Hartford-area suburbs to accept about 2,000 more city youngsters into their schools.

The goal of the expanded Project Choice effort is to help the state meet desegregation benchmarks in the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit settlement. In most years, the governor and General Assembly would likely sign off on the money with little debate. But the proposal part of a two-year, $49 million desegregation plan comes as Connecticut spirals into its worst financial crisis in memory.

"It's the perfect storm," said Kathryn Demsey, a consultant with the state education department.

When Demsey and Deputy Education Commissioner George Coleman visited Plainville in mid-November to talk about the proposal, local school officials immediately questioned whether the money would really become available.

"When you hear the governor say there won't be any new money, that gets scary," Plainville school board member Tabitha Manafort told them.

The first hurdle for the proposal will come Wednesday morning when the state education board meets to adopt a budget plan. If the proposal is still intact after that meeting, it will go to review by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. If Rell backs it, the proposal then goes to the General Assembly.

But with state finances badly battered, Rell and legislative leaders have pointedly declared that 2009-10 budget deliberations will focus on freezes and rollbacks, not new initiatives.

It will be months before the final budget is set, and towns won't know definitively about Sheff funding until then, Coleman and Demsey acknowledged. But they noted that state leaders realize that if Connecticut does not meet standards in the Sheff settlement, the case could be reopened and a judge might impose harsher terms. They also emphasized that the alternative of building more magnet schools is becoming too expensive.

Constructing magnet schools was once seen as the key to better integrating Hartford's schools, which serve mostly minority students, and the suburbs' mostly white ones.

But Demsey said, "We don't see it as a viable option going forward."

"Project Choice is the strategy of preference," Coleman said.

The state pays suburbs $2,500 for each Project Choice student. The proposal is to boost that to somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000 next year; the highest rate would go to towns in which 3 percent or more students are from Project Choice. The following year, the rate would jump to $3,500 to $7,000. In addition, participating suburban towns would get between $35,000 and $75,000, with the top amount for towns that take the most Hartford students.

"We're looking to make a substantial commitment to districts that make a substantial commitment," Demsey said.

Project Choice is intended to give Hartford youngsters the option of attending suburban schools that have available seats. State educators say that with enrollment falling in many suburbs, the state will have a large and relatively cost-effective way to satisfy requirements of the Sheff deal.

The state met its goal under Sheff this year by enrolling 19 percent of Hartford students in non-segregated schools, including Project Choice schools and regional magnet schools. Next year, the standard rises to 27 percent, followed by 41 percent the following year.

Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan also is proposing that lawmakers authorize his department to penalize schools that don't take part in Project Choice, primarily by reducing their state aid. Specifics of that proposal have not been made public.

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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