Opposing Sides Agree Conn. Integration Efforts Need More Money
Still miles apart in their assessment of their state's response to a 1996 court order to better integrate its schools, Connecticut education officials and the plaintiffs in the state's long-running desegregation case are both arguing that the remedy needs a greater investment of public dollars.
In presenting the state school board with a report on Connecticut's desegregation efforts, Commissioner of Education Theodore J. Sergi pressed last week for a substantial increase in funding for the programs at the core of the state's strategy to reduce racial and ethnic isolation in its schools. While characterizing the progress made as "reasonable first steps," Mr. Sergi stressed that "much more must be done."
The pitch coincided with the beginning of the legislature's 2001 session and came less than a week after the plaintiffs in the desegregation case, known as Sheff v. O'Neill, announced that they were reviving their lawsuit. The state, they contend, has not yet adequately responded to the Connecticut Supreme Court's mandate.
Instead of offering a wholesale criticism of the state's response, however, the plaintiffs in their latest complaint argue that state officials have not backed it up with enough money. Like Commissioner Sergi, they said state lawmakers should allocate more funding to programs that allow students to transfer between school districts and to new magnet schools that draw from across Connecticut.
"We're not opposed to voluntary measures," said Dennis Parker, an assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "We're saying do it, but do it right, and do it on a scale and on a level that makes a difference."
Debate over how Connecticut should better integrate its schools has raged since 1989, when the Sheff case was first filed against the state on behalf of a group of Hartford-area students. At the time, more than 90 percent of students in the capital city's school system were black or Latino.
Connecticut's highest court ruled in their favor in 1996, and ordered the legislature to make the implementation of a remedy a top priority. Since then, the state has focused on crafting new incentives and opportunities for schools and students to take part in programs that allow children to attend schools outside their communities.
But the Sheff plaintiffs have consistently argued that the state's efforts have failed to effectively change the racial or ethnic makeup of the schools in Hartford or its neighboring districts. When they first sought to revive the case in 1998, Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma issued an opinion saying the remedy hadn't been given enough time.
Two years later, the plaintiffs now say it is clear that state response isn't meeting the supreme court's mandate, and they have asked the Superior Court to order state officials to make a substantially greater investment in their strategy.
In his progress report last week, however, Mr. Sergi pointed out that the number of students served by Connecticut's interdistrict magnet schools had grown from 3,500 to 6,400 since 1997. During the same period, the number of children participating in the state's interdistrict-transfer program, called Open Choice, has risen from about 470 to 1,480.
"It's hard to argue that what we've done is sufficient, but there certainly have been visible, measurable steps taken," Mr. Sergi said in an interview.
To achieve more progress, Mr. Sergi has proposed budget increases for the next two fiscal years for many elements of the state's integration efforts. Under his proposals, annual funding for magnet schools would jump from $36.7 million this year to $52.6 million in 2003, and annual funding for Open Choice would grow to $12 million, from $8.2 million, during the same time.
Also last week, the state school board called on Connecticut lawmakers to amend the two programs to ensure that they do not exacerbate the problem of racial and ethnic isolation. Under the board's proposal a new magnet school would not be approved unless at least 25 percent of it's students would be from racial groups that were underrepresented in the local district, and groups of students who transferred between districts would have to reflect the overall racial composition of the systems they left.
Although he hadn't seen all of Commissioner Sergi's recommendations, Mr. Parker of the Legal Defense Fund said last week that a greater influx of spending should have come sooner, and he pointed to the fact that many of the state's new magnet schools have waiting lists. He added that the plaintiffs planned to press ahead despite the budget proposals.
Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 23