“I’m calling about my daughter, who’s going into ninth grade,” I told the guidance counselor. “I’d like to know about your class sizes and how many of your graduates go on to college.”

Hanging up the phone, it occurred to me that this was probably not what public schools are used to hearing. I was shopping for a high school for my daughter. Marketplace forces and customer service never had much impact on town school business or enrollments.

Connecticut is a state of fierce home rule and yawning public school inequality. We build and defend dozens of different and duplicative school systems so we can educate kids based on arbitrary district lines. The gap between our black and white and rich and poor kids is the worst in the nation.

Urban public schools are in a legitimate state of crisis. But blaming Sheff programs for their funding problems is a false choice, ignoring severe underlying structural problems and penalizing programs that work.

Within and around this system of school district barricades are dozens of inter-district magnet schools and transfer systems that offer lucky lottery winners a shot at some of the best educational opportunities in the country.  Thanks largely to the Sheff v O’Neill case, Connecticut has embarked on a voluntary, regional two-way system of public school choice. In greater Hartford alone, parents can opt for award-winning schools specializing in math and science, the arts, social justice and many other themes.  At the same time, Sheff programs are spurring improvements throughout the Hartford public schools, which have become an all-choice system.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 1996 in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs, finding the racial and economic isolation of Hartford schoolchildren was unconstitutional. While the court found the state responsible, it did not order a remedy, instead instructing the state to come up with a solution.

Lawmakers and the plaintiffs did not attempt to change district boundaries; instead they created inter-district magnets and expanded Project Choice, to both bring suburban (predominantly white) kids into Hartford while allowing Hartford (mostly Black and Latino) kids to go to the largely white suburban schools.

This system has so far raised the number of Hartford schoolchildren going to integrated schools to 16%, while also benefiting thousands of suburban children, who are attending high quality schools and also, in nearly every case, experiencing far more integration than they ever would in their home district.

Including mine:  For the last two years my kids have enjoyed the new white boards, block scheduling, dedicated teachers and advanced math offerings of a Sheff magnet middle school in the Learning Corridor in Hartford. As high school rolled around, I took myself on-line and started looking at my options. Turns out there’s an impressive array of themes, locations, and transportation options.

And so … my local public school gets calls, from me and surely dozens of others, quizzing about teacher ratios, student performance, academic resources and a host of other factors. So do all systems where parents have public school choice.

This has got to be having a positive impact on education, both in individual districts and throughout the region.

While Connecticut is benefiting also from charter schools and other efforts, which offer choice and high-quality schools while harnessing innovation and creating opportunity for urban kids, there is an important difference.

The Sheff programs are excellent schools, winning national awards and engaging city and suburban parents and offering children an integrated education. They are also the only ones that strive for and are measured by how well they succeed providing a racially and economically integrated learning environment – which, more and more studies show, produces adults who are better critical thinkers, have greater ability able to solve problems, more prepared for the world they will face.

Schools across the US are more segregated now than they were before Brown. Housing patterns and recent US Supreme Court decisions that seem to limit the use of race in aren’t helping, and decades of systemic housing discrimination will be very difficult to reverse.

Are we ready to say separate and equal is acceptable?

Voluntary, two-way programs like ours are national models. And they are working – by slowly but deeply integrating public schools, and improving educational outcomes for kids.

We need to remember that these are public schools, and additional costs incurred to sustain magnet themes or for transportation are marginal – we would be educating these children anyway – while the benefits, in terms of increased student and future citizen achievement, are incalculable.

We need to realize how lucky we are in Connecticut to be able to quiz our local schools with the confidence of a shopper that can go somewhere else – and we need to support the options that are making better choices for all of our children.  For Governor Rell, this means maintaining the current formula funding levels for Hartford and other urban schools, and expanding Sheff programs as recommended by the Commissioner of Education in December.

Liz Dupont-Diehl is a consultant with the Sheff Movement, a grassroots organization that works to increase support for two-way integration programs in Greater Hartford (www.sheffmovement.org).  She is also Vice President of Development at Career Resources in Bridgeport, CT.