Education officials propose a plan to expand school choice–at a cost

State education officials are proposing a series of measures to expand opportunities for Hartford schoolchildren to attend suburban schools--but the multi-million-dollar plan will be a tough sell with the state facing a massive budget deficit.

The plan would provide money to reopen suburban schools that have been closed, with the requirement that 25 percent of their enrollment be Hartford students. It also would more than double current reimbursements for districts that enroll a certain threshold of Hartford students, increase transportation grants to get students to alternative schools and give the state education commissioner authority to require suburban districts to enroll Hartford students.

The state is under court order in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case to reduce the racial isolation of Hartford's largely black and Hispanic school population. In an interview last week, Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan said the alternative to the state's taking action on its own is to face another court mandate.

"We have to do more. We can make the investment now, or we can go back to court and they can make us meet our objectives," he said. "I imagine a court mandate will look very similar to what I am proposing."

The plan would cost $2 million a year for a pilot program to reopen four closed schools; $5.9 million a year to increase the reimbursement to suburban districts for enrolling Hartford students; and an additional $7 million a year to increase transportation grants.

McQuillan said the costs could prove to be a major problem, considering the state is facing a $3.3 billion deficit the coming year.

"We need to get people to make this commitment," he told State Board of Education members during a meeting Thursday.

McQuillan said reopening closed schools is less expensive that building new magnet schools, which has been the principal strategy for complying with Sheff so far.

The state has spend more than $1 billon on magnet schools since the 1996 order; they currently enroll about 5,200 students.

State Department of Education officials say a less expensive alternative is to increase enrollment in the state's Open Choice Program, which has about 1,300 student attending public schools in a district outside their own, well short of the SDE goal of 3,000 students.

Martha Stone, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs, said the state is still falling "significantly short" of its obligation to provide alternative schools -- whether it's charter, magnet or enrollment in a suburban schools.

"There's a huge demand of students wanting to leave their current school. The problem is there are not thousands of seats at suburban schools. The suburban districts aren't offering the spots," she said.

McQuillan said part of the problem is that there are not adequate incentives for suburban districts to accept Hartford students.

James Caradonio, who heads the Greater Hartford Regional School Choice Office, said some superintendents and principals tell him they would loose money by taking students from the city.

"It's absolutely not enough money. It's common sense why we still have a shortage of spots," he said.

Districts are currently reimbursed $2,500 for each student they enroll. McQuillan plans to ask state lawmakers to increase that to $6,000 for districts that offer 3 percent of their seats to Hartford students.

The proposal to reopen closed schools would start as a pilot program and would provide $250,000 a year for each participating school for renovations, computers, lab equipment or other instructional materials if 25 percent of the school's students are from Hartford.

McQuillan is also proposing that he be allow to require suburban schools accept more Hartford students, a proposal he admits is a long shot and will face a lot of resistance if the appropriate funding does not accompany such a mandate.

Stone said requiring suburban districts accept Hartford students, increasing the funding for each student they enroll and reopening closed schools to provide more options are good steps toward the state's meeting its obligations.

"We would support this," she said. "The goal is to offer more seats in schools for Hartford students."

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