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A glass half empty

There’s news about the Hartford schools, with regard to the 1996 Sheff vs. O’Neill decision, and there are two ways to put it: The portion of Hartford children who now attend integrated schools is either “nearly half” or “not even half.” Take your pick, but 17 years after the fact, the glass-half-empty version sounds a whole lot closer to reality.

Yes, there has been progress in complying with the landmark Connecticut Supreme Court decision; significant progress — 42 percent of Hartford students now go to “integrated” schools (according to the official definition, that means schools that are less than 75 percent minority), whereas six years ago that figure was a mere 11 percent. “We are proud of the progress we’ve made to date,” a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education recently told The Connecticut Mirror.

And yet, this is the 21st century — it has been 49 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was supposed to outlaw most forms of racial discrimination; 59 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which was supposed to eliminate “separate but equal” schools; and 145 years since the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was supposed to guarantee the rights of all citizens, regardless or race or national origin.

One thing the Brown decision did, more than half a century ago, was to declare, once and for all, that separate schools cannot be equal. And yet, 58 percent of the kids directly affected by the Sheff decision still attend schools that are, by the court’s definition, segregated. So it’s hard to see any cause for celebration over the brilliant job Connecticut has done in desegregating the overwhelmingly black and Latino Hartford public schools.

What’s a state to do?

The main mechanism that’s been used, so far, in an attempt to comply with Sheff, has been the establishment of magnet schools. While these magnets may benefit both the inner-city students and the suburban students they seek to attract, the suburbs and small towns have so far shown little interest in signing up. And while it may be easy to attribute that fact to racism, there are also legitimate parental concerns at work, such as a fear of urban crime and an aversion to unreasonably long daily rides in a school bus.

And the magnet schools do come at a substantial cost — with another $60 million or more likely to be sought to continue this approach into the next school year.

Meanwhile, the main reason our schools are segregated in this state is that our towns are segregated — and almost every town chooses to exercise its right to run its own schools, leading inevitably to the kind of “racial and ethnic isolation” that Sheff was meant to address.

The obvious remedy would be to eliminate that local right and regionalize all of the public schools in Connecticut. But no matter how blue this state is, politically, we also have a very old tradition of local government, so it’s hard to imagine the General Assembly making such a drastic move.

And, until and unless that happens, it’s also very hard to imagine that Hartford’s schools will achieve the Sheff goals.



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