Michael Daley credits his college success to winning the school choice lottery and getting into two of the region's high-achieving public middle and high schools.
"I was so far behind my classmates," the Hartford native said, reflecting on his first week at a middle school in the suburb of Granby under a longstanding school choice program.
He went on to attend Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a nationally acclaimed public high school in Hartford.
"Without them, I wouldn't be speaking to you now as a junior in college," he told a rally at the state Capitol last week, crediting the top-notch teachers at the two schools.
Daley's opportunity to attend schools outside his neighborhood is the result of a 16-year-old court desegregation order for Hartford schoolchildren. Now, in a year the legislature and governor are crafting legislation to reshape the state's public education system, school desegregation advocates are questioning why this popular school choice model has been left out of plans to improve education.
This year, more than 6,000 of Hartford's 21,000 students applied to leave their neighborhood school. Almost 12,000 suburban students entered the lottery.
This "model should be part of the [reform] mix, not just for Hartford, but for the other poor districts," said Martha Stone, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the longstanding Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case.
An expansion of the Hartford model "hasn't been part of any discussion at this point," House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said last week.
It may have been largely left out of the governor's and legislature's reform plans for education, but the lessons from Sheff are being examined. The State Department of Education has partnered with the University of Connecticut to study the influence of Sheff-related programs on student achievement. A 2009 UConn study concluded that city students in racially integrated magnet high schools made greater gains in reading and math than their peers did in traditional city schools.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor has said he supports expanding school choice options, but at the same time, he wants to improve the existing schools in cities across the state.
"We need to have more choices ... choices that are high quality. We also need to ensure that students who prefer to stay [in their neighborhood school] have the opportunity to attend high-quality public schools," he said after a recent meeting with Hartford parents.
Segregated schools across the state
In Bridgeport, 90 percent of the students are black or Hispanic and almost everyone comes from a low-income family. Schools in surrounding towns have dramatically different student bodies: Less than 10 percent of their students are black or Hispanic and even fewer come from low-income families.
"Segregated schools are still a problem in other parts of the state," said Phil Tegeler, the leader of the Sheff Movement who worked closely with Stone to win the lawsuit against the state in 1996. "This legal principle applies to other cities in the state, but lawmakers have treated Sheff as a legal mandate for Hartford and not as a statewide model."
A national report released last week by the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, ranked Connecticut poorly for its housing, zoning and school assignment policies. Three of the top five regions in the country listed for consigning too many low-income students to the worst schools were in Connecticut.
Religious leaders from Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford wrote to legislators Wednesday calling on them to reverse this trend.
"Communities of color disproportionately suffer," they wrote. "These shameful realities must stop now: ... Trapping 135,000 of our kids in failing schools... Allowing race, income and zip code to determine whether or not a child gets a good education."
Because it's become apparent that the state leaders will not be addressing this disparity during a legislative session dubbed "the education year," Stone said she is building a legal case to challenge the Bridgeport region's disparity.
"There is still a ways to go in this state," she said. "There needs to be a case in Bridgeport."
The cost of integration
Offering Hartford students a seat outside of their neighborhood public school is not inexpensive. Over the past 16 years the state has spent nearly half a billion dollars to build more than a dozen magnet schools in the Hartford region to attract suburban white and Hartford black students.
"I don't think the state should continue to build new magnet schools. It's expensive," said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, which runs both the choice program and several magnet schools in Greater Hartford.
The state has also used a longstanding student transfer program, known as Open Choice, that allows Hartford children to attend schools in predominantly white suburban districts. There are also major costs to do this, including paying the new district to enroll students and transportation costs to get them to school.
"It is costly," Kathy Demsey, who oversees Sheff-related programs for the state, said of any approach to integrating these schools.
Hartford not integrated yet
Although legislators say expanding Hartford's school choice model is something they are willing to consider, the immediate attention has been on meeting the Sheff court desegregation order by a November deadline.
To meet the order, the state must find about 500 new seats for Hartford children and another 500 for suburban students to expand enrollments in magnet schools and the Open Choice program. Under terms of the order, at least 41 percent of Hartford's minority schoolchildren must be enrolled in integrated schools by this fall. The state can also comply if 80 percent of Hartford children who apply to leave their schools are given the opportunity to do so.
If the state fails to meet these benchmarks, a judge could order the state to make specific, and possibly costly, changes to integrate the schools.
The governor recommended a $7 million increase in state funds to support additional seats in integrated schools, but legislators are moving forward with a budget bill that recommends reducing that by $4 million -- a reduction Demsey said that will leave her "somewhat scrambling" to find pay for enough seats in integrated schools.
"We have to open these programs," she said.
The education department's plans include adding about 750 seats by expanding magnet programs run by Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, and the addition of early elementary and middle grades at Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.
In addition, plans are being discussed with Hartford public school officials to expand suburban student enrollment at Breakthrough II Elementary School and Betances Early Literacy Lab School. To persuade Hartford to expand, the education department has proposed that the state give the city additional money on top of the per/student allocation.
To increase participation in Open Choice, the department proposed persuading larger suburban districts to offer more Hartford seats by increasing their per/pupil reimbursements. This was expected to double the number of seats they would offer, Demsey said.
A substantial expansion of state-funded preschool spots is expected to be part of final legislation approved this year, but Stone, the Sheff lawyer, calls it a missed opportunity to integrate schools across the state.
The new preschool slots should be attached to integrated settings, "so that we are not creating segregated preschools," she said.
Malloy also proposed hundreds of new seats for charter schools. Stone questions why these, as well, were not required to be integrated seats. The legislature's new bill drastically scales back the number of new charter seats.