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Conn. Lawmakers Back 10-Region Desegregation Plan

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A Connecticut legislative panel has approved a desegregation plan that seeks to improve the racial balance between city and suburban schools by carving the state into 10 regions responsible for devising local remedies.

The bill, approved by the legislature's joint education committee this month, would withhold state funds from any town refusing to participate in the process.

The measure represents the legislature's response to a considerably more aggressive desegregation plan unveiled in January by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who called for dividing the state into six regions. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1993.)

Another important difference is that the legislature's plan would exempt 29 rural communities in the northern part of the state, on the grounds that they are too isolated from cities or towns with many minority students.

Governor Weicker and Commissioner of Education Vincent L. Ferrandino last week criticized the provision, arguing that integration will not succeed if areas can be excluded without penalty.

Mr. Weicker "feels there is a statewide collective responsibility to begin eliminating racial isolation,'' said Avice Meehan, the Governor's spokeswoman. "Those [exempted] regions might contribute in different ways because of their geographic isolation.''

"The problem of isolation is one that faces the entire state,'' added Mr. Ferrandino. "It impacts urban settings as well as rural settings.''

Transporting students to other areas is only part of an integration plan, the commissioner suggested, arguing that the isolated communities could approach integration through curriculum, faculty programs, after-school activities, and student exchanges.

But Sen. Kevin B. Sullivan, a co-chairman of the education committee, said the exemption reflected "the practical side of things.''

"For communities that are an hour away to have a meaningful relationship is just unrealistic,'' he added.

Regional Plans Mandated

Also unlike the Governor's plan, the education committee's proposal makes no mention of busing students across district lines or building interdistrict schools.

Under the committee's bill, the towns in each region would develop their own integration plans, which could call for interdistrict programs, magnet schools, or controlled public school choice. The 10 regional school boards created under the bill would be required to submit a desegregation plan to the state board of education by Dec. 15, 1994.

The bill does not go as far as Mr. Weicker's proposal, which defined racial isolation and "gave the state board the power to go into court to seek enforcement'' of integration plans, Ms. Meehan noted.

"Some of the things we had were absolutely necessary,'' Mr. Ferrandino argued, to undo residential segregation that has concentrated most of the state's minority students in about 15 urban districts.

"There needs to be a mechanism in place so we could measure over time the number of students educated in isolated environments,'' he said.

But Senator Sullivan defended what he described as the committee's decision to move the focus from desegregation to equality in education.

"The Governor proposed a quota-driven mechanical process that had no way to link education and diversity,'' said Mr. Sullivan.

The committee's bill "takes into account parent concerns'' about how an integration plan will affect learning opportunities, he said.

"This is much more directed to the underlying concerns: to improve education, to enhance and increase awareness of diversity, and to reduce real barriers in the economy, jobs, and transportation,'' he added.

Key education groups expressed concern about parts of the committee's proposal.

The Connecticut Education Association, for example, complained that the plan calls only for including teachers in the integration-planning process, without specifically calling for union involvement, as the Weicker proposal did.

The teachers' union "went from being one of the key players in the planning process to not being instrumental at all,'' said Robert F. Eagan, the president of the C.E.A.

'Where Is the Money?'

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, on the other hand, has endorsed the committee's changes, including increasing the number of regions and lengthening the implementation period.

"But a major concern remains,'' said Terry P. Cassidy, the president of CABE. "Where is the money going to come from for us to be able to do creative interdistrict activities?''

The committee bill authorizes up to $300,000 for the first year of desegregation planning. But legislators have not said how the costs of implementing the plan will be met.

Action on the proposals comes as a state court is deliberating on a major desegregation case, Sheff v. O'Neill, that challenges racial disparities between Hartford schools and the surrounding suburbs. A decision in the case is expected this fall.

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