Education commissioner favors choice programs over magnet schools

The state’s top education official said Tuesday he opposes the creation of more magnet schools as a means of meeting a court order to desegregate Hartford’s predominantly black and Hispanic public schools.

Instead, Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan urged legislators to expand a longstanding school choice program that allows Hartford parents to enroll their children in integrated or mostly white suburban schools.

For more than a decade, the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate specialized magnet schools to comply with a ruling in the Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation case, but McQuillan said it is time to rethink that strategy, especially in light of the state’s worsening fiscal crisis.

“I think that [the magnet school approach] has really run its course, and people are rightly finding out this doesn’t make sense anymore,” he told members of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

The suburban choice program has operated in the Hartford region for more than 40 years and has been part of the state’s effort to comply with the 1996 state Supreme Court ruling in the Sheff case, but it has been largely overshadowed by the proliferation of magnet schools.

Enrollment hovers at about 1,200 children in the program, now known as Open Choice, but McQuillan believes it could be expanded significantly at a much lower cost than that of magnet schools. “Inter-district choice is almost twice as effective in terms of overall cost,” he told the committee.

Suburban schools have allowed in only a trickle of children under the choice program, citing cost and space limitations.

Although the legislature increased support for operating magnet schools in the Sheff region this year, it did not increase the subsidy to suburban schools for enrolling Hartford students in the choice program. That subsidy remains at $2,500 per student despite McQuillan’s request for a substantial increase. McQuillan also has asked for legislation that would give him the authority to order suburban schools to enroll additional Hartford students.

The effort to bolster the choice program also drew support from Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), an agency that runs both the choice program and several magnet schools in the Hartford region.

“Given the economic times . . . the state should put its funding behind Open Choice programs,” said Douglas, who attended the committee meeting. He said there are benefits to both the magnet school and suburban choice programs. “Magnet schools have been extremely successful, but Open Choice is a more viable way, given the public dollar.”

Magnets are voluntary enrollment schools designed to attract a racially mixed student body from cities and suburbs by featuring popular specialty themes such as science, performing arts and international studies.