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On Eve of Trial, Conn. Board To Weigh Choice Plan

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On the eve of a closely watched school-desegregation trial, the Connecticut state board of education is scheduled this week to consider a limited school-choice plan designed to improve racial balance in the state's public schools.

The plan, proposed by Commissioner of Education Vincent L. Ferrandino, could be presented to the legislature as part of an education package if approved by the board, officials said.

The school-choice option, which would probably be limited to about 1,000 high school students in its first year, would include monetary incentives for both districts that accept new students and those that face lower enrollments, according to the commissioner.

Mr. Ferrandino proposed the plan shortly before the case, Sheff v. O'Neill, was scheduled to be argued in Connecticut Superior Court.

In the lawsuit, filed in 1989 by 12 minority students from Hartford, civil-rights advocates charge that racial, ethnic, and economic segregation between the city's schools and those of its suburbs violates poor and minority children's right to an equal education. (See Education Week, May 6, 1992.)

The trial, set to begin this week, is expected to set a precedent for school systems throughout the state.

'Look at the Timing'

The link between the Hartford case and state desegregation efforts has been the subject of considerable debate in the state.

In a statement on the trial earlier this year, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. warned that education officials would have to act quickly to stem segregation in the public school system.

The comments led to speculation that the state, worried about how it might fare in the Hartford case, was offering last-ditch alternatives to court-ordered desegregation.

John C. Brittain, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, hinted at a similar motive for Commissioner Ferrandino's proposal.

"It is interesting to look at the timing of [the commissioner's] remarks in relation to the start of the trial,'' Mr. Brittain said.

But Tom Murphy, a spokesman for Mr. Ferrandino, said the "initiatives by the department of education to address the problems in the state are separate and distinct'' from the Hartford case.

"This trial is a protracted process,'' he added. "It could be years before a decision is reached. We're moving now to make changes.''

Michael Helfgott, a member of the state board, offered a similar view. "My sense is that this board is committed to moving an agenda that will help solve our problems with or without Sheff v. O'Neill hanging over our heads,'' he said.

Choice Safeguards Included

The proposed choice option and other reforms proposed by Mr. Ferrandino have been "generally well received,'' Mr. Murphy said, while acknowledging that there are still questions about the details and scope of the plan.

But several members of the state board gave an outline of the reform plan lukewarm reviews.

"I have been skeptical, but I am trying to approach this with an open mind,'' remarked Mr. Helfgott.

"I would not want to support a program that, in order to get a good education, would force students to leave an urban area for the suburbs, a disenfranchised area for a franchised one, or a minority area for majority one,'' he explained.

If the proposal "can be neutral on those grounds,'' he added, "I would support it.''

Mr. Murphy said the proposal would include safeguards designed to avoid a "merry-go-round'' effect. The plan "prevents recruitment for athletic programs and strongly encourages two-way transfer through transportation and program initiatives,'' he pointed out.

The commissioner is emphasizing that school choice is "but one part of an overall strategy'' to improve the racial balance in the schools, Mr. Murphy added.

Under another part of the plan, schools built jointly by cities and towns would receive a higher level of reimbursement than schools built by single districts.

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