Desegregation Panel Offers 15 Proposals to Conn. Legislators

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A state task force last week passed the baton to lawmakers as Connecticut officials work toward a solution to the racial and ethnic segregation that persists around the state's urban districts.

After more than four months of debate, the appointed Educational Improvement Panel handed 15 recommendations to lawmakers, meeting the deadline set by Gov. John G. Rowland after an order last summer from the state supreme court.

Ruling in the case known as Sheff v. O'Neill, the high court declared the segregation around Hartford's schools unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to fix the system.

Steps suggested by the improvement panel include interdistrict transfer programs, greater use of magnet and charter schools, and expanded preschool in urban areas.

While most people on the panel supported expanded choices for parents as the focus of their efforts, extensive debate centered on how interdistrict transfers would affect funding and whether participating in the new choice programs would be mandatory for districts. "Student Transfers Proposed in Conn. Desegregation Plan," Dec. 4, 1996).

School Construction Ties

The panel's final report recommends a transfer policy modeled in part on the state's vocational and agricultural schools program. Under that program, between $5,000 and $6,000 in funding follows students to the schools they attend.

The state should also provide additional funds to districts that gain transfers to help with construction and transportation, the panel said.

The panel recommended that the school choice program be phased in starting in the 1998-99 school year, and that all districts in the state participate.

The panel added that exceptions should be granted if space is limited.

"It is mandatory, but it's mandatory at a kind of reasonable level," said Gerald A. Gunderson, a panel member who teaches at Hartford's Trinity College. "Students should be able to transfer, and the districts should take them, but the number they take should be based on if they have the space. They can't just say, 'We don't have the space, go away.'"

Although the panel did not call for limiting transfers to neighboring districts, it recommended participation in the choice program be "within reasonable transportation limitations."

In making its recommendations, the panel also voiced support for privately funded scholarship programs to allow children from low-income families to attend private schools.

One of the more novel recommendations calls for tying state school construction grants to furthering the cause of integration. But some panel members, including Senate President Kevin Sullivan, opposed programs that might help some schools while hampering others.

"I support incentives, but I think if you look at the spirit of [the court's] decision, it doesn't say there are any culprits here," the state lawmaker said.

"The panel went through a long debate over what you could dictate versus what you could encourage people to do," Mr. Gunderson said. "Most of what's going to happen is because people want to participate, and they get rewarded for what they do."

Plaintiffs React

Mr. Sullivan favors the panel's call to target new state aid for improving early-childhood-education programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in the state's major cities.

"Those things tend not to get the attention, but as I talk to city parents, those are the things that motivate them," he said.

The panel also recommended greater accountability for all of Connecticut's schools, with the possibility of state-mandated reorganization where poor performance persists.

The panel further wrote that the Hartford school board should be placed "on notice ... with no more than six months to demonstrate progress."

Although lawyers for the plaintiffs in the desegregation case said last week that they needed time to analyze the recommendations, they complained that the panel was not clear in stating its exact goals. The recommendations do not stipulate to what degree the state's schools should be integrated.

"There's also a larger concern about what's going to happen to the urban schools," said Dennis Parker, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. The report, he argued, "seems to focus on creating opportunities for people to move outside."

While the ideas set the stage for lawmakers to debate integration plans this year, the panel's recommendations included few price tags for its proposed policies and programs. That leaves the hard part to Connecticut lawmakers.

"It's going to be a long and difficult session, and the key will be the money," said Robert Rader, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

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