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Gov. Weicker Unveils Measure To Achieve Regional Integration

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Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut late last week introduced legislation aimed at launching an unprecedented statewide attempt to alleviate racial segregation in public schools.

The Governor's plan, which he first outlined last month in his State of the State Address, would require each of six regions of the state to develop an integration plan to address racial and economic differences between urban and suburban schools.

"The racial and economic isolation in Connecticut's school system is indisputable,'' Mr. Weicker said in his address, warning that the legislature and local school officials must take responsibility for alleviating the problem before the state ends up with "a court-run school system.''

In the weeks since the speech, Mr. Weicker's call has mobilized widespread support and resistance and brought into sharp focus the thorny legal and political problems that await any attempt to address school desegregation at the state level.

While legislators and leaders of education groups have lauded the Governor for raising the segregation issue, many at the same time have vowed to oppose certain elements of his proposed plan.

"Actions speak louder than words, and, so far, the Governor's statements are only words,'' said John C. Brittain, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in a desegregation suit against the state cited by Governor Weicker as the driving force for change.

Over the past two decades, Mr. Brittain said, Connecticut officials have repeatedly acknowledged racial isolation in public schools without taking effective action against the problem. He pledged to continue to press his case on the assumption that state officials will not act on their own and that change will have to be court imposed.

'Two Connecticuts'

The legislative package released by the Governor last week did not differ significantly from the proposal outlined in his earlier speech. The proposed legislation is far more detailed, however.

In his speech last month, Governor Weicker referred repeatedly to Sheff v. O'Neill, a suit filed in Connecticut Superior Court on behalf of 19 Hartford-area schoolchildren and expected to be decided this year. The plaintiffs in the Sheff case last week finished presenting their testimony, and the state was expected to begin presenting its case this week.

"Today, despite all good intentions, there are two Connecticuts when it comes to the education of our children, Connecticuts separated by racial and economic divisions,'' Mr. Weicker said.

"There is a Connecticut of promise, as seen in its suburbs,'' he said, "and a Connecticut of despair as seen in its poverty-stricken cities.''

Governor Weicker said his proposal was not intended to influence the result of the Sheff case, but to prod the state to act before the court does.

Mr. Weicker called for the state to establish six educational regions, with borders based on six regions previously drawn up by the state for delivery of human services.

Each region would be required to develop a five-year plan for reducing racial isolation in its schools and providing all children with "a quality, integrated learning experience.''

By the end of the five-year period, local districts would have to have racial mixtures that reflected the racial composition of the region as a whole, within limits set during the region's planning process.

The development of the integration plans would involve numerous public hearings and consist of two phases. The local phase would include school boards, superintendents, teachers, union representatives, parents, and community leaders, while the regional phase would involve the heads of each community school board.

The regional plans, to be submitted to the state board of education for approval by the summer of 1994, would be required to deal with most areas of school operations and with the integration of education with health and human-service agencies to improve their delivery.

Governor Weicker said the state would provide support during the planning process, as well as resources to support the implementation of the plans, to begin during the 1995-1996 school year.

'A Lot of Choices'

Even before he announced the details of his plan, Governor Weicker had spurred an unprecedented level of activity in the state focused on addressing racial isolation and improving urban schools.

The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents plans next week to take the unusual step of holding a special meeting of all superintendents in the state to discuss the Governor's proposal and the problems he is trying to address, said Frank R. Yulo, the organization's executive director.

Also in recent weeks, lawmakers have put forward a wide array of ideas for addressing the issue, introducing bills calling for school-choice programs, a task force examining school choice, voucher programs for poor preschoolers or all poor students, or state takeovers of districts that fail to improve student performance.

"I think we are going to put a lot of choices out on the table,'' said Sen. Kevin B. Sullivan, a Democrat who serves as a co-chairman of the legislature's joint education committee.

Mr. Sullivan predicted that legislation for magnet schools and charter schools also would be thrown into the mix.

Constitutional Issues

At the same time, some members of the legislature are mobilizing to block either the Governor or the courts from imposing sweeping integration plans.

Rep. Mike Jarjura has proposed amending the state constitution to excise sections cited as prohibiting the de facto racial segregation that exists in the state's schools.

The state constitution includes the guarantee of a right to a free public elementary and secondary education, as well as the far more common guarantee of equal rights and equal protection under law. It has been interpreted by plaintiffs in the current desegregation case against the state as creating a fundamental right to "an equal educational opportunity,'' which the plaintiffs say is being denied to students in racially and economically isolated urban schools.

Such an interpretation leaves the Connecticut constitution proscriptive of de facto segregation not attributable to any action of the state. As such, it is a far stronger document in this respect than the U.S. Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted as prohibiting school segregation that is de jure or traceable to state actions in the past. (See Education Week, May 6, 1992.)

Representative Jarjura's proposed amendment would change the Connecticut constitution to prohibit segregation in education only "where governmental authorities have acted with intent to segregate''--thus bringing the state closer to the federal standard.

An Admission of Liability?

Mr. Brittain, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Sheff case, last week characterized Mr. Weicker's speech as an admission by the state of liability for the educational inequities the case is trying to address.

"With such statements, the plaintiffs could, conceptually, call the Governor to the stand,'' said Mr. Brittain, noting that he introduced Mr. Weicker's speech as evidence within days after it was presented.

But State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has disputed Mr. Brittain's claim that the Governor admitted liability.

"His saying that as a matter of social policy we should move forward is not to say that the state has violated the constitution,'' Mr. Blumenthal told local reporters.

Rep. Paul J. Knierim, the ranking Republican member of the joint education committee, said the issue of liability in the case may prove secondary, however, in that the Governor now "is a more real force than the lawsuit is.''

"It will be years before that lawsuit is finally concluded,'' Mr. Knierim said.

Governor Weicker may spur quick action because he "is a politician who knows how to make the legislature act, even when it might not like to,'' Mr. Knierim said.

Mr. Weicker, a former Republican U.S. senator who was elected Governor as an independent, pushed a state income tax through the legislature in 1991 despite vehement public opposition.

'The Resources Are Not There'

While lauding Governor Weicker for having the courage to attack the racial-isolation issue, Mr. Knierim and several other legislators criticized his plan for concentrating too much on racial integration and not enough on improving the overall quality of schools.

"I think we have to start looking at the total child,'' said Rep. Nancy Wyman, a co-chairman of the joint education panel. "I'm not sure this plan is going to do that.''

Senator Sullivan also chided the Governor for not proposing an increase in educational spending. "The reality is that the resources are not there'' to implement the plan unless the state offers additional funding, he said.

"You can't ask any parent in Connecticut to trade off what is happening positively for their child to help someone else,'' he argued. "There has to be a net improvement.''

Mr. Sullivan also alleged that the Governor in the past has taken "a kind of Robin Hood approach'' that has pitted districts against each other over resources, creating an unlikely climate for regional cooperation.

Gordon A. Bruno, the superintendent of the Meriden schools and the president of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, said he was pleased that the Governor appeared to be broadening the responsibility for racially balancing schools to the regions and the state, rather than simply imposing it on city schools.

Shouldering the Burden

But Patricia G. Sidas, the president of the Parent-Teacher Association of Connecticut, expressed concern that property values would fall in some areas if the integration plans for those regions prevented children from attending local schools.

Raymond A. Jansen, the publisher of The Hartford Courant, last week predicted that state residents would resist the Governor's plan if they feel "it is going to be a take-away for their town, their school district, their children.''

Nevertheless, Mr. Jansen's newspaper has taken an editorial stance urging suburban parents to try to look beyond such fears.

Mr. Sullivan said that for the regional plans to work, cities must be willing to yield political power, while suburbs must agree to shoulder a larger portion of the tax burden.

State and local officials last week also noted that there was more to Connecticut demographics than the urban-suburban dichotomy described by the Governor. Integration plans must also take into account the needs of rural communities, they suggested, as well as suburbs that border large cities and are rapidly becoming racially mixed.

Education groups also expressed concern about whether they would play a big enough role under Governor Weicker's plan.

Ms. Sidas criticized the Governor for not calling for more parental participation in the planning process, and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education has faulted him for not consulting its members.

Mr. Knierim also expressed fear that the regional-planning process would be "an end run around the legislature.'' Regions would be required to submit their integration plan to the state board of education, he noted, rather than to the legislature.

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