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Student Transfers Proposed in Conn. Desegregation Plan

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Connecticut could wind up with one of the country's most far-reaching student-transfer programs as officials try to eliminate racial imbalances between urban schools and their suburban neighbors.

The state school board is considering whether students from Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven should be able to attend any school in the state. Still in draft form and lacking details, the plan would require suburban districts to open 5 percent of their seats for transfers, and would provide some state construction money where more space is needed.

Up to 10 percent of the students in each of the urban districts could transfer, according to the plan.

This month, the board will consider including the plan in its annual package of education proposals for the state legislature, which reconvenes in January.

The concept of interdistrict transfers has emerged as an attractive option for officials working to alleviate persistent segregation around the Hartford city schools.

In deciding a 7-year-old desegregation lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neill, the Connecticut Supreme Court in July ruled 4-3 that the racial and ethnic isolation in the Hartford district violated the state constitution's protection against segregation. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug. 7, 1996.)

In recent weeks, elements of a possible remedy have come from the state school board, the plaintiffs in the case, and the Educational Improvement Panel, a 22-member group of lawmakers, education officials, and community leaders appointed after the ruling.

The panel now faces a Jan. 23 deadline for making recommendations to the legislature.

Under the draft board proposal to allow urban students to choose outside schools, school funds would follow transferring students from one school to another.

'Voluntary' Not Enough

"This is in the talking stage," cautioned board Chairman Craig Toensing, who also sits on the Educational Improvement Panel. "It's not anything more than committee work."

But Mr. Toensing believes some kind of transfer plan will emerge in whatever recommendations the panel finally adopts.

"There's going to have to be a movement of people, and the question is how that's going to happen," he said.

About 600 of Hartford's 25,000 students already attend school in neighboring districts through a 30-year-old voluntary transfer program.

To help alleviate the racial isolation of Hartford, however, the state board's more comprehensive transfer plan would mandate that districts participate, a stipulation that worries some Connecticut education groups. But Mr. Toensing doubts a voluntary plan would work.

"If it's left strictly up to voluntary participation, I don't think enough will get done," Mr. Toensing said.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit recently submitted 30 pages of desegregation "guidelines" for the Educational Improvement Panel to consider.

State-Run Magnets?

The document stipulated that the city's schools should have programs, facilities, and resources "at least equal to" those of the state's other schools.

While supporting the chance for more city students to attend school in the suburbs, the plaintiffs also suggested that the suburban students need to be permitted--and encouraged--to move to the city's schools, unless the transfer increases the racial imbalance between districts.

"The accumulation of court opinions over the years have suggested that the burden of transportation should not be on one group," said Charles V. Willie, a desegregation expert from Harvard University who testified for the plaintiffs during the case.

One of the more novel suggestions the plaintiffs offered was to create state-run magnet schools, which they termed "lighthouse schools," located in or near urban areas. The guidelines further suggested that the state coordinate its low-income-housing programs with school desegregation in mind.

Despite the support building around the transfer proposal, the plaintiffs have run into some friction with the Educational Improvement Panel, which they say has been slow to address the state supreme court's mandate.

The panel's members recently rated 129 individual options for creating a remedy--from mandatory student reassignment to consolidating districts. The group planned this week to decide which ones deserved further consideration.

Proposals with the highest support included using magnet schools to draw suburban students to urban areas, creating state-financed regional preschool centers, and allowing parents greater choice in selecting their children's schools.

"They brainstormed, but then used their ideas almost as a popularity contest," said Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer on the plaintiffs' legal team. "Providing a remedy for a court order is not about what's popular."

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