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Courant: Sheff Parties Ask Legislators to Approve Settlement

Wednesday April 16, 2008

Sheff Parties Ask Legislators To Approve Settlement
by Arielle Levin Becker
Courant Staff Writer
April 16, 2008
©The Hartford Courant

Representatives from both sides of the state’s 19-year-old Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation lawsuit on Tuesday urged lawmakers to embrace the latest proposed settlement, saying it stands the best chance yet of achieving what earlier efforts have not: desegregating Hartford schools.

“We signed this agreement because we believe it could be done,” said Dennis Parker, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, testifying before the legislature’s education committee. “We recognize it involves hard work but we are willing to put in that hard work.”

The proposed settlement, reached earlier this month, outlines measures that include building magnet schools in Hartford-area suburbs and expanding the number of slots for Hartford students in suburban public schools, racially integrated preschools and technical and agricultural high schools. It would also streamline the application process to magnet schools, improve transportation and support for Hartford students attending schools in other districts, and give the plaintiffs a role overseeing the desegregation efforts.

If it’s successful, by the time the settlement expires in 2013, at least 80 percent of Hartford students who seek places in a racially integrated school will have them.

The proposed accord would replace a 2003 settlement, which expired last summer far short of its goals. The new proposal doesn’t spell out how to achieve the new goals, but requires officials to create a comprehensive plan by Nov. 30, and specifies many items that must be included.

“There is no moment to be lost if we’re to implement this by December,” state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan said, urging approval of the plan.

Lawmakers offered a mixed reception.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, noted that Tuesday’s hearing was far less contentious than ones held last summer on an earlier settlement proposal, which legislators ultimately refused to ratify. Fleischmann said he is optimistic about the new proposal.

State Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D- Meriden, the committee co-chairman, said the proposal had a more reasonable chance of success than previous efforts, but said he was “chagrined” that officials have not yet offered projections on the cost of the settlement.

Others expressed skepticism.

State Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, said the settlement continued mistakes of a decade ago, shortly after the state Supreme Court ordered Hartford’s schools to be desegregated.

Back then, he said, the experts charged with developing the desegregation effort split into two camps: one that wanted to focus on reducing racial isolation, and one that sought to improve student performance. The camp focused on racial isolation seemed to have won, Fonfara said. He questioned whether it was worth continuing to spend money with the same focus.

“This was about the quality of the schools and what kids in Hartford, particularly minority kids, receive, and I don’t see those kids benefiting,” he said.

Parker disagreed “fundamentally,” he said.

The proposed settlement, like earlier efforts, is designed to improve education while also reducing racial isolation, he said. “We have never and do not now accept the proposition that it is an either-or,” he said.

The exchange brought to a head a theme raised by several legislators, who suggested that the efforts to desegregate Hartford schools had not focused sufficiently on raising student achievement or determining whether the efforts were improving education or simply, in the words of state Rep. Deborah W. Heinrich, D-Madison, “moving kids around.”

Parker and McQuillan disputed the notion, and argued the settlement was designed to both reduce racial isolation and raise student achievement.

Contact Arielle Levin Becker at alevinbecker@courant.com.