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Courant: Open Dialogue On Sheff

Saturday November 10, 2007

Open Dialogue On Sheff
by Stan Simpson
November 10, 2007
©The Hartford Courant

The excuses have certainly mounted about why there hasn’t been more suburban school engagement in Open Choice – an inclusion program that transports Hartford students to suburbia to get them a better education.

Class size issues. Enrollment increases. Paltry state tuition reimbursement.

An emerging concern from the ‘burbs, usually expressed privately, is test scores. The fear is that under No Child Left Behind, their schools will be unduly penalized for taking in city kids, many of whom have significant academic deficits.

I’ve heard it all – and I’m not unsympathetic.

The buy-in for Open Choice, now in its 41st year, has been uneven at best – and particularly disappointing in the last few years. Of the 1,600 Open Choice seats the state set as a goal, about 500 slots are available, and there is waiting list of 206 Hartford kids.

There’s been a slow-go approach with Open Choice and for the construction of several theme magnet schools, the two primary remedies agreed upon after the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation court ruling 11 years ago. The state Supreme Court ordered the legislature to remedy the problem of segregated schools.

Well, the 24,000-student Hartford school district is more segregated than ever. Several of the magnets have not been built. Those magnets that are up are indeed attracting suburban students, but they are mostly black and brown kids, not the intended target – whites.

The Sheff plaintiffs and the state were in court again this week. The plaintiffs say the state is moving at a snail’s pace; the state says it’s doing the best it can. This is what happens when a court makes the right decision, then undermines it by allowing lawmakers to use the honor system for implementation.

Since the 1996 decision, millions have been expended for new schools and programs, yet wholesale segregation continues and test scores have not significantly improved.

Unfortunately, the Sheff case is reviving discussions about whether integration in education is worth it. Demographers tell us this reality: Minority workers – black, brown and others – will make up more than 40 percent of the state’s workforce by 2030. A large majority of that population will come from urban markets. By 2050, the country’s minority populations will be in the majority. Over the years, I’ve highlighted a smattering of urban, segregated schools with mostly poor kids that have defied the odds and produced impressive test scores. But I believe there’s tremendous value to a child learning among peers from different ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds.

If Open Choice is to work, and magnet schools are to be built in a timely manner, there has to be Open dialogue. Yes, more magnets should be built in suburban towns if that will better encourage white parents to participate. And yes, Hartford’s role in running some of these magnets should be handed over to the Capitol Region Education Council, which has a record of running quality, diverse magnets. If suburban schools are concerned about reimbursements and potentially being punished because they are accepting city students with lower test scores, then put those issues on the table – and come up with solutions.

Twice in the past 12 months the state education commissioner’s office has met informally with Hartford-region superintendents to discuss the impediments to Open Choice. It should also meet with white suburban parents to find out why they are not enrolling in the Sheff magnets.

If we want to promote real choice – then open up the discussion.

Stan Simpson’s column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be heard live today on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.