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Equity Claim Will Figure in Illegal-Enrollment Cases

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Lawyers representing Hartford, Conn., parents who face felony charges for illegally sending their children to school in nearby Bloomfield said last week that they intend to base their defense, in part, on the state's constitutional guarantee of an equal education for all children.

Igor I. Sikorsky, the lawyer representing Claude Johnson, will claim that his client had a legitimate address in Bloomfield, having moved there after separating from--but not divorcing--his wife. Samuel Freed, the lawyer representing Elizabeth Brown, said his client has been a resident of Bloomfield since last August.

Both lawyers said they will also raise "constitutional issues and claims" concerning equality of opportunity and the state's "obligation to provide equal education for all children."

"The per-pupil expenditures do not vary greatly but the type of students and the quality of school environment are strikingly different" between the districts, Mr. Freed said.

Seeking Better Schools

Hartford's Mayor, Thirman L. Milner, in a letter to Bloomfield's Mayor, David A. Baram, urged that the charges against the Hartford parents be dropped.

Not long ago, he said, black parents "were beaten and even lynched for trying to teach their children to read and write." The Hartford parents, all of whom are black, were essentially seeking the same thing--to "get a better education for their children," he wrote.

"There is a misconception held by many that quality of education cannot be obtained in Hartford public schools," Mayor Milner continued. "That is no longer the case, but the belief still exists," spurring parents to try to send their children across district lines, he added.

"Parents who do not have the finances for private education have resorted to the best means available--enrollment in suburban public schools," Mr. Milner said.

An Age-Old Problem

School-finance experts say it is not common for parents with access to a local high school to send their children to school in a neighboring district, paying the tuition usually charged. But districts without high schools routinely pay neighboring districts to provide high-school instruction for their students.

Students have long used false addresses and illegally crossed district lines to attend other schools, according to Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, but the problem has been exacerbated somewhat, he noted, by the mobility of families and high divorce rates, which make it far more difficult to keep track of students' residences.

Edward H. Bourque, assistant superintendent of the schools in Fairfield, Conn., said that his district--a suburb of Bridgeport--annually "disenrolls" some 40 students for crossing district lines.

In Fairfield, as in Bloomfield, "it's the old story about differences between urban and suburban schools," he said. "Students come into suburban schools to get what they think is a better education."

Some observers contend that the Bloomfield case highlights broader issues of equity in education and parental choice.

Choice and Finance Issues

James S. Coleman, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, argues that the fact that parents go to such extremes to send their children to schools in neighboring communities points to a serious problem in American education--the lack of parental choice.

The migration of families from cities to suburbs following desegregation were precursors of what will happen if schools do not provide more options, Mr. Coleman says,6adding that denying students access to schools in neighboring communities is less and less reasonable as "the financing of education becomes more a state than a local function."

But Mr. Thomson said that only citizens in Hawaii, a state in which schools are 100-percent financed with state funds, have a persuasive argument for open access between local districts. In the other 49 states, he noted, local taxpayers contribute up to 60 percent of the cost of local schools and should not be expected to support nonresidents.

James. L. Phelps, associate state superintendent for planning and school management in Michigan and newly elected president of the3American Education Finance Association, said he could not understand why school districts such as Bloomfield make such an issue of residency laws.

"We get water turned on, police protection, garbage collection without having to justify to a government agency that we're living there. Detroit has a public library and an art museum. They don't ask me where I live when I want to go into the museum," he said.

Racial Motive Alleged

Mr. Sikorsky, the lawyer, characterized the larceny charges and the threat of a 20-year jail sentence as "overkill--like using a flame throw-er to light a fire." He also suggested that officials in Bloomfield may be motivated more by "racial fears" than by concern about paying for the education of nonresidents.

As the minority population in the schools increases--half of all students in Bloomfield are minority--there is concern that more whites will flee, opening up housing and lowering property values and tax income for schools, he claimed.

Leo Rosen, Bloomfield's town attorney, responded that the arrests and Mayor Baram's desire to investigate the possibility of a civil suit to recoup expenditures for illegal students had nothing to do with race.

"Bloomfield has a 50-percent minority population," he said. "It was cited as an All-American city 15 or 20 years ago because of its open policy on integration."

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