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Desegregatiom Proposal in Connecticut Stresses Voluntary Interdistrict Efforts

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More than a year after recommending a plan that could have led to mandatory interdistrict desegregation in Connecticut, the state commissioner of education has unveiled a new proposal that stresses voluntary approaches to reducing racial imbalances in schools.

The proposal, presented to the state board of education this month, met with a hostile reaction from some local officials and civil-rights lawyers, who called it "too little and too late." The lawyers said they would file suit in coming weeks to force the state to act to end segregation.

"Research shows that voluntary efforts have not produced the most effective racial or educational equity," said John C. Brittain, a lawyer for the Connecticut Coalition for Educational Equity, a two-year-old or4ganization of civil-rights and community activists.

"In order to achieve racial equity," he said in an interview last week, "you must start with a mandatory plan."

The commissioner, Gerald N. Tirozzi, responded that he was not troubled by the critics' impatience. The fact that they call his efforts insufficient, he argued, merely underscores the growing support for solving the problem.

"If we have created a climate where people are impatient, that's good," Mr. Tirozzi said.

But, he added, "I don't think you rush to judgment on an issue like this. The problem has been there for 200 years."

Original Proposal

Mr. Tirozzi's original plan, contained in a January 1988 report, recommended state action to alleviate severe racial imbalance in the state's schools. Some 80 percent of Connecticut's minority students, it found, are concentrated in 14 of its 165 districts.

The report proposed that the state create financial incentives to encourage districts to cooperate voluntarily to reduce imbalances. The state board of education would have been authorized to impose mandatory plans if it determined that such voluntary efforts were "in whole or in part ... ineffectual."

The proposal won praise from civil-rights experts, who noted that it marked the first time a state agency had moved to remedy racial segregation without the threat of a court order.

Response to Criticism

Critics of the plan, however, argued that it impinged on Connecticut's tradition of local control over education.

"We had problems with the report," said Terry P. Cassidy, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "Decisions are best made at the local level."

The new report, while noting that racial polarization within the state has worsened in the past year, responds to such criticism by emphasizing voluntary desegregation efforts.

"Recognizing that there is no single strategy to promote quality, integrated education in Connecticut," it states, "this report advocates a mix of voluntary strategies."

In particular, it proposes that the state board convene a blue-ribbon task force to consider:

Doubling funding, to $800,000, for grants for cooperative interdistrict programs;

Expanding Project Concern, a 23-year-old program that enables disadvantaged inner-city elementary-school students to take courses in nearby suburbs;

Modifying summer-school and vocational programs to encourage interdistrict cooperation; and

Encouraging districts to develop "curricula that are bias-free and rich in diversity."

In addition, the report recommends creation of a number of new programs, including regional magnet schools and incentives to recruit minority teachers. And it urges that school-construction grants be used for collaborative building projects between city and suburban districts.

The board is expected to consider the recommendations next month.

While praising the report's emphasis on voluntary approaches, Mr. Cassidy of the school-boards association warned that it may not go far enough in alleviating disparities among districts.

"Many of the issues of equity relate to the state's willingness to bear its fair share of education costs," he said. "Generally, we believe the state is not participating as we believe it should in funding education in Connecticut."

Fiscal Problems

Gov. William A. O'Neill this year proposed a $35-million cut in grants to school districts as part of an effort to reduce an $800-million budget deficit. The House education committee this month urged the appropriations committee to restore those funds.

Mr. Tirozzi acknowledged last week that the state's fiscal problems had affected his choice of recommendations.

"A commissioner can only take this to a finite point," he said. "Beyond that, without significant citizen support, I can't go much further."

"We can do it in a voluntary way," he added. "The potential is there. But the bottom line is, over time, we hope that there is a changing fiscal climate and we can do more."

"If not," the commissioner said, "the courts may be there."

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