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Courant: Money Should Follow City Kids To Suburbs

Friday November 9, 2007

Money Should Follow City Kids To Suburbs
by Rick Green
November 9, 2007
©The Hartford Courant

We’ve got over 100,000 seats in public school classrooms in suburbs around Hartford and there’s room for just 1,000 city kids.

One percent.

That’s so pathetic it’s embarrassing to even say.

But as the Sheff school desegregation case is again in Superior Court this week, it’s a failure we have to confront.

Sure, Hartford schools must improve. Perhaps we need more regional magnet programs. But can’t we do better than the 1,070 children currently in the 40-year-old Project Choice voluntary school busing program?

Our affluent and middle class towns say they don’t have space for more than this. Fine, but there are consequences here – be prepared for the day when we can’t find enough skilled workers or bunks in our prisons.

There are hundreds of children on the waiting list for this proven program that disperses poverty and opens opportunity. Suburban superintendents will tell you these children invariably succeed and end up in college. Isn’t this what the Sheff case – and public education – is about?

As it turns out, there’s a reason for this limited success: Most of the money doesn’t follow the kid to the suburbs.

“The grant that follows the child is woefully insufficient,” said Bruce Douglas, director of the Capitol Region Education Council, which runs Project Choice.

So, for example, the state of Connecticut – which is under a court order to desegregate metropolitan Hartford schools – gives Avon about $2,500 for each of the 41 children it takes. The district, however, spends about $11,000 per child.

Meanwhile, Hartford keeps most of the money it would have spent educating this child. Much of that money comes from state taxpayers.

This is no education crisis, it’s a taxpayer rip-off.

“There isn’t enough of an incentive,” said Avon Superintendent of Schools Richard Kisiel, in comments repeated to me by other superintendents.

There are a million bureaucratic reasons why the legislature set the $2,500 amount. The idea that taxpayers’ money should follow the student is a radical notion in public education, where failure is almost never penalized.

Meanwhile, because “my parents are screaming about class size,” Kisiel said, Project Choice becomes “an issue I try to keep it as low-profile as I can.”

The Sheff plaintiffs say the state should have the authority to order districts to take more kids. State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan told me he doesn’t want to strong-arm districts to take more Hartford kids, but he has commissioned a study to look at how much space they really have in their classrooms.

“Some of this is about will,” McQuillan told me. But it’s also about hiring teachers and expanding classrooms for children who don’t live in their town – not to mention overcoming worry that city kids will lower test scores. Just look at the numbers: Glastonbury accepts 42 kids, while Wethersfield has a woeful 13.

Two decades ago, West Hartford had 267 students coming from Hartford; now it has 77. School Board Chairman Jack Darcey told me his district is now 34 percent minority and schools have grown more overcrowded.

“We can probably do a little more,” Darcey said. “You send the money with the kid, you will see a different response.”

One percent. We need a judge, a governor or an education commissioner with the backbone to tackle this.

Rick Green’s column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at rgreen@courant.com.