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Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Plan Would Join Hartford With Surrounding Districts

Plan Would Join Hartford With Surrounding Districts

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As the desegregation case in Hartford, Conn., heads back to court this fall amid complaints that the state has failed to ensure integration of its schools, a nonprofit group is floating a plan to achieve that aim by consolidating 22 districts into a single system.

Even though the plan's authors acknowledge that its political prospects aren't good, the Connecticut Center for School Change has won a grant to take the idea on the road. With the help of $99,000 awarded late last month by the Boston-based Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust, the center will iron out the plan's details and hold a series of public forums, focus groups, and briefings on the issue.

Center officials hope to generate public support for a more comprehensive solution to the racial and ethnic isolation around Hartford than they say the state has offered since the 1996 ruling in the case known as Sheff v. O'Neill.

"The only way to do this is to admit that these are all our kids, and to do that, the district lines have to come down," said Gordon Bruno, the executive director of the New Haven-based center, which supports comprehensive school reform efforts statewide.

Breaking Down Walls

In deciding the Sheff case two years ago this week, the Connecticut Supreme Court wrote that the most significant factor contributing to the persistent segregation was the 1909 state law making school district lines contiguous with city and town boundaries. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug, 7, 1996.)

But all the remedies the state legislature has enacted since the ruling leave current district lines intact, leading the Center for School Change to call its plan "The Unexamined Remedy." The center proposes combining the 24,500-student Hartford schools with 21 surrounding systems to create a single district serving more than 100,000 students.

While about 95 percent of Hartford's students are members of minority groups, the high school enrollment of the consolidated system would be about 66 percent white, 18 percent black, and 13 percent Hispanic, the center estimates. The plan also calls for a "controlled choice" program in which families could pick where they sent their children so long as their selections didn't result in racial imbalances.

Eliminating the area's current governance system would be both the plan's linchpin and its hardest selling point. But the center doubts that allowing students to transfer between existing districts--a critical element of the state's remedy--will be sufficient to integrate the schools.

"The problem with local control," said Kathryn McDermott, a co-director of the center's project, "is that so long as you have populations partitioned into relatively homogeneous pieces, as is the case in Connecticut, there isn't an institutional forum in which equity issues can be raised."

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey called the proposal "revolutionary."

"I think most people would agree that local control of the school systems is the way to go," said Mr. Gaffey, the co-chairman of the joint education committee.

State lawmakers' responses to the 1996 ruling have focused on improving educational programs in urban areas while expanding opportunities for parents to send their children to schools outside the districts where they live. They passed, for example, a two-year, $80 million school readiness initiative to increase the number of families served by preschool and day-care programs in the cities.

A 'Positive' Step

But the plaintiffs who first launched the Sheff case nine years ago complain that the state hasn't take enough steps to integrate the Hartford area schools. They're scheduled to argue before a superior court judge in September that the state has not lived up to the state high court's mandate.

Although not specifically endorsing the center's proposal, some of the plaintiffs' lawyers praised the group for offering a comprehensive plan focused on the goal of desegregation. "It's more positive than anything I've seen coming from the state," said Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Pages 8-9

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The Connecticut Center for School Change is is based in Hartford, not New Haven.

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