Some 340 children attend Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester, but the town Board of Education this school year found itself facing difficult decisions because Verplanck was just two students out of compliance with the state’s racial imbalance law.
“It doesn’t seem like such a problem. Am I not understanding something?” State Board of Education Member Ellen Camhi said reacting to a presentation at a recent meeting on Manchester’s inability to resolve years of non-compliance with the law.
Each year the State Department of Education informs several districts that they are violating the law by having schools with demographics far less diverse than their district. This year six districts were cited: Fairfield, Greenwich, Groton, Manchester, Enfield and Bristol. Just a handful of students put most of these districts out of compliance, and obliged them to come up with integration plans.
This reality, and appeals from local school leaders, has led members of the State Board of Education to begin to reconsider the decades-old law.
“I’m not sure the implementation of the law still matches up with the spirit of the law,” said Ferdinand L. Risco, Jr., a member of the SBE and of New Haven’s school board. “We should move to change that law so it fits 2011 and not 1969.”
Connecticut lawmakers passed its racial imbalance law during a time of civil unrest. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated the previous year and people were rioting in cities across the country.
To achieve integration, the law requires districts to report their student demographics for each school. If any school has 25 percent more minorities than the district average, the community must submit a plan to address the imbalance within 60 days.
“We are seeing these reports more and more frequently,” Theresa Hopkins-Staten, the chairwoman of the SBE Legislative and Bylaws Committee, when announcing they would be looking at making some recommendations to revise the law. “We understand the spirit of the law, but what is the impact of the law?”
The impact, some board members say, is that many school districts’ response is to simply close down the school cited for being imbalanced. Local boards complain that the rapid growth of minority communities in some towns makes it nearly impossible to stay in compliance.
“Its a moving target. We are changing very rapidly,” Kathleen Ouelette, the former superintendent of schools in Manchester who now heads the Waterbury system, told the board last month. “It seems every time we get back into compliance we have to change that plan” the following year for being imbalanced again.
Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the SBE, said because the law was written at a time when demographics were relatively stable, a district’s integration plan would “hold for a while. That is no longer the case. It’s not clear the law is working for what’s going on now.”
And the solutions to integrate the schools are often costly. In Manchester, they approved a costly preschool program at three schools in an attempt to attract more white students.
“We have struggled with this because of financial reasons,” Ouelette said, after her school board at first unanimously rejected the plan. They quickly changed their mind after the SBE warned them of the ramifications of not having a plan months after they were told to create one.
Districts that show no progress in integrating schools or fail to have a plan are subject to losing their state funding.
Urban districts are exempt from the law because their populations are overwhelmingly made up of ethnic minorities. Taylor said regional integration requirements would be politically very difficult to pass.
“I don’t know if there is a solution for that,” he said. “This law is was written to deal with imbalance in districts. Fixing it regionally, well that’s a much bigger question that I am not sure will be able to be achieved.”
Any recommended changes would ultimately need to be approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Harford and house chairman of the Education Committee, said he is open to considering changes, but the goal of integrating schools must remain.
“It’s important that towns have racial diversity in their schools,” he said. “The General Assembly hasn’t reconsidered this law in a long time. I am open to considering change, but it’s going to be a tough knot to untie.”