In 1996 the state Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case that racially and ethnically isolated schools in Hartford were unconstitutional. They instructed the state to take measures to correct the de facto school segregation that characterized both city and suburban schools, but provided little guidance for how they should do so. Since then, the state and the Sheff plaintiffs have come to an agreement which is supposed to allow for 80 percent of Hartford students seeking seats in school choice programs to be seated by next October. It’s not going that well, though there is still optimism that the state will meet its goal.
The alternatives to city schools, though they clearly work well for some students, aren’t perfect. Suburban districts accept a small number of students, while others who want out of the city’s failing schools look for seats at regional charter or magnet schools. This doesn’t necessarily fix isolation, however. Students attending suburban schools are not always accepted by their suburban, often white peers. When I was a student teacher and later a full time high school teacher in Hartford-area suburban schools, it was easy to see how students, faculty and administrators often turned their backs on the Project Choice kids, creating a new de facto segregation.
Charter and magnet schools, the other hope for fixing school segregation, are also extremely racially isolated, as Jonathan Pelto points out. They also often don’t deliver on their promises of better education; when socioeconomic factors are accounted for, many charter/magnet schools don’t outperform the districts they draw from. There are some shining exceptions, of course, like the Amistad Academy in New Haven, but they are just that: exceptions.
So what to do? Charter and magnet schools offer some hope, though they aren’t perfect. But even if the state meets its Sheff-mandated target next year, will Hartford’s schools really be desegregated? Will Bloomfield’s, where the high school is 98 percent nonwhite even though the town itself is far more diverse? Are the economic and social barriers that come along with racial isolation for minority students ever going to ease? If the current system isn’t working, maybe next year’s legislative session should consider more drastic solutions.
One of the institutions declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1996 was the system of exclusive town-based school districts, which drew rigid district boundaries along town lines. The establishment of charter schools and regional academies as alternatives to town or city schools was supposed to be the solution, as they drew from multiple districts. However, the actual problem that town-based districts generate remains: when parents who have enough money don’t like a school district for all kinds of reasons, including discomfort with the racial and economic mix in the schools, they leave. Parents who don’t have enough money stay, leading to pockets of poverty and its attendant miseries. This is the story of Hartford and its suburbs since the 1950s, and no school choice program as they currently stand can really alter that fundamental reality.
Maybe it’s time to admit that town-based school districts aren’t the best way to educate our students, and look into another model. Not only are town-based districts expensive for municipal governments to maintain and heavily dependent on state aid, but they are redundant, offer little choice to those living within them and, most importantly, encourage racial and economic segregation. To truly integrate the students of Greater Hartford and provide real school choice, school systems should combine to form a consolidated regional school district.
This isn’t a new idea. Wake County in North Carolina did just this in the 1970s, largely because of the racial discrepancies between Raleigh city schools and the suburbs. Wake County’s system is one of the largest in the country, and is noted for its racial integration efforts. While it has problems such as long bus rides for students and the shuffling of students between schools, it still can serve as a model for such a fragmented region as ours. Why shouldn’t we explore a single Hartford County school district, or, failing that, a single Greater Hartford district for those towns at the region’s core?
Such a move would be controversial, of course, but there would be tangible benefits to the state’s schoolchildren and taxpayers. Students would have far more choice in where they wanted to go to school, instead of being restricted to a few local schools, and more highly specialized programs could be developed. Teachers and schools could be held to a single, consistent standard enforced by a regional district agency. Administrative costs and duties could be centralized and streamlined. Yes, some towns would lose the high test score bragging rights they so jealously guard, but the dismantling of walls between towns would be the price of better education for everyone. And, if Hartford area schools pioneer regionalization, they could serve as a model for the integration of school districts across the state.
Gov. Malloy has indicated that school reform will be the focus of 2012’s short legislative session. I hope he and our legislators examine this and other unconventional ways of making our schools better for everyone. Connecticut’s children can’t wait.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.