Efforts to desegregate, expand school choice a challenge with looming deficits

The Caro family debates which schools to enter their children in for the state's school choice lottery.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

The Caro family debates which schools to enter their children in for the state's school choice lottery.

State education officials are proposing to expand opportunities for Hartford children by sending more of them to suburban schools -- but the multimillion-dollar plan will be a tough sell as growing signs of deficits plague the state budget.

The plan -- which includes increasing current reimbursements for districts that enroll a certain threshold of Hartford students, opening two new magnet schools and possibly a new charter school for next school year -- is an attempt by the state to comply with a 16-year-old Connecticut Supreme Court order requiring state officials to reduce the inequalities caused by the racial isolation of Hartford's largely black and Hispanic school population.

"We are obviously moving forward and looking at what we can do to expand," said Kathy Dempsey, the leader at the state Department of Education office responsible for complying with the settlement.

These recommendations that were submitted to the governor's budget office last month come as the state plans to announce in two weeks whether it has fulfilled the requirement that 41 percent of Hartford students be attending an integrated school or that 80 percent of those who wish to leave their neighborhood school be provided the opportunity to do so.

If the state does not comply, the alternative to state lawmakers taking action to integrate schools on its own could be the courts mandating a remedy.Last school year, the state was far from reaching the finish line.

'A fresh start'

Damian Caro is ready to leave Kennelly School in the South End of Hartford, one of the state's most segregated schools and lowest-performing by several measures.

The problem is that this 13-year old Hispanic student hasn't had any luck winning the state's school choice lottery.

He and his family are hoping his luck changes next school year and he's given "a fresh start."

"I want -- no, actually I need -- him to get out of his school. It's horrible," his mother, Jessica, says as she strolls through a recent school choice fair in Hartford. "He keeps getting wait-listed. It's been tough."

The Caro family saga is one thousands of parents each year face as they apply to have their children leave their neighborhood schools. Last school year, 32 percent of Hartford students were attending integrated schools, and 67 percent of the students that applied were given the opportunity to leave the school they were zoned to attend.

While Caro is hoping luck is on her son's side this time around, the plans being pitched by the department to the plaintiffs in the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation case and the governor's budget office may also improve her chances if they come to fruition.

Help Wanted: Suburban districts to enroll Hartford students

The crux of the department's plan is to increase suburban school districts' participation in the state's Open Choice Program, which has about 1,700 students attending public schools in a district outside their own this school year, well short of the 2,500 students that the Department of Education reports is needed to comply with the settlement.

The proposal -- which awaits approval by the State Board of Education next week -- would boost reimbursement rates to $8,000 for each student that suburban districts enroll if they reach the threshold of having 4 percent of their students coming from Hartford. Districts are currently reimbursed between $2,500 and $6,000 per student, depending on how many they enroll.

"Any increase in incentives for districts to participate more in Open Choice is absolutely a worthwhile idea," said Martha Stone, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case.

But, she added, the incentives to entice districts to voluntarily offer seats in their schools to Hartford students historically have not gone far enough, hence the long wait list of students hoping to attend a suburban school.

After years of the Open Choice program not getting enough school seats in suburban schools to comply with the order, the previous education commissioner proposed ending voluntary participation in the program and mandating suburban districts to enroll more Hartford students.

That proposal died in the legislature and it is not something the department is considering this year, Dempsey said.

"Mandatory participation is not on the table right now," she said.

Stone, who supported the obligatory participation when it was proposed two years ago, said she is hoping these increased incentives will pay off in getting more students into great schools. Last year, the state's increased reimbursements helped, but it is not expected to have helped out enough.

"Our opinion is that they need to still substantially increase the incentives and then if that doesn't work the mandatory enrollment should be the fall-back," Stone said.

New schools

Included in the state's budget proposal are drastic expansions in both charter school enrollment and magnet schools. The proposal includes increasing enrollment in existing charter schools and opening two new charter schools for a net gain of 1,863 new charter seats, a 29 percent increase over the next two school years.

Dempsey said that the department is discussing with the plaintiffs now whether it makes sense to open one new desegregated charter school in the Hartford region. Existing charter schools in the state do not currently have integration requirements, and many charter schools lack diversity.

The department is also hoping to open two new magnet schools next school year that would enroll 701 students to help with the integration efforts. Those new schools would build on existing programs by opening feeder elementary schools at Goodwin College in East Hartford and Betances School in Hartford.

"At the moment, these are the only [new] schools for next year. Obviously, what we think we need to have to meet the demand will drive that decision," said Dempsey. "We'll have to see."

The department scrambled over the summer to open four new schools for the upcoming school year in an attempt to meet demand.

"We are hopeful going forward that the planning is done well in advance to open new schools so it's not done at the last minute again," said Stone, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "It was frustrating. There needs to be a careful, well-detailed plan."

With school choice fairs underway, and parents like Caro making their decisions on where to apply by the Jan. 31 deadline, only two new schools are in the mix so far, Dempsey said.

The proposal before the governor's budget office, however, hints that new magnet schools may be on the table for other parts of the state. The proposal recommends increasing the number of interdistrict magnet schools from 72 to 80. Enrollment in magnet schools statewide would increase from 28,139 students last school year to 38,600 students over the next two school years, a 37 percent increase in enrollment.

State officials were mum on where the other new magnets are being considered.

There have been some hints that the Bridgeport area is ripe to have new state-funded interdistrict magnet schools. Earlier this year, Stone said she is building a legal case against the state for the segregation taking place in the state's largest city.

The Bridgeport schools superintendent met with advocates last month to discuss the future of school choice for Park City children.

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said during a recent interview that he is not ready to disclose the state's plans for magnet schools.

"It's a work in progress," he said.

Last month, Stone's partner in winning the Sheff lawsuit against the state told an audience in Hartford at a Connecticut Mirror-sponsored forum that segregation is more prevalent in the state than ever.

"Today we have more isolation by race and by ethnicity in 2012 than we did in 1954 at the time of the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education. ... Connecticut is a tale of two states," said John Brittain, a civil rights lawyer and part of the team that filed the Sheff lawsuit in 1989. "We should have sued Bridgeport and New Haven, too."

A national report released earlier this year 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.

Dempsey and Stone both said this week that strategies to rectify the inequalities created by segregation in other parts of the state have not entered their discussion on how to comply with the Hartford-desegregation order.

Are students better off?

Armed with her daughter, granddaughter and new data comparing outcomes of various schools, Stone entered the state's first school choice fair of the year with a smile across her face.

"I took pictures of her at one of the booths," said Stone of her granddaughter, who will be entering the lottery for the first time as a preschool student from Middletown.

"I took my daughter out of school 27 years ago for the first day of arguments [before the Supreme Court] and now here we are," she said, pointing to her daughter. "Her child is eligible," Stone said. "You never know how you as a parent are going to impact your child's lives."

And while Stone's children never directly got to benefit from having public school choice options, she points to a new report provided to her from the state Department of Education showing that thousands of students are now better off because of school choice. Those results show that students in the choice programs test significantly above their peers in the zoned neighborhood schools.

"If we want to close the achievement gap [between minorities and their white peers] then this is the answer," she said while looking around the gymnasium filled with parents and their children seeking an alternative education. "We wanted integration and we also wanted quality. We now know we have achieved quality."

The last time a comparison of Sheff programs was done was in 2001, which only showed a comparison of magnet schools falling behind state averages on many indicators.

Can the state afford this?

The school choice proposal made to the governor's budget office is an expensive one. Spending for charter schools would increase over the next two fiscal years by $21.4 million a year, for Open Choice by $20.4 million, and for magnet schools by $48.6 million.

This $55.4 million plan for the upcoming fiscal year that begins in July and $90.5 million request for the following year comes as several signs indicate that the 2013-14 budget faces a fiscal hole in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Official budget forecasts for the upcoming fiscal year are not due to the legislature until Nov. 15, the same day the state will announce if it met desegregation requirements.

The vice chairwoman of the State Board of Education has also expressed concerns about the cost of building and opening new magnet schools as the state's school-age population dwindles.

"I understand we are under a court order, but that doesn't mean we have to build all these schools. There are other approaches, " Theresa Hopkins Staten, a board member from West Hartford, said during a recent legislative committee meeting.

The $48.6 million proposal for expanding magnet school enrollment is only for the operating budget and does not include what it would cost to construct these schools. Over the last 5 years, the state has spent $500 million building new magnet schools.

State legislators in 2009 placed a moratorium on building new magnet schools outside the Hartford region in an attempt to control state spending.

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy offered a plan for this fiscal year last February, his own budget agency projected that plan would run $424 million in the red by 2013-14.

And while the legislature ultimately cut $186 million off that plan when it adopted the current budget last May -- also reducing any potential deficit in 2013-14 -- fiscal analysts issued a new report that downgraded revenue expectations for 2013-14 by $311 million.

In addition to these deficit estimates, nonpartisan budget analysts and Comptroller Kevin Lembo warned in recent weeks of rising Medicaid costs and declining revenues from the sales and electricity generation taxes as well as from the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort casinos.

Additionally, the state faces a $60 million deficit that must be closed for the current fiscal year.

This grim fiscal picture might be the driving force behind the department insisting that no decisions have been made yet, and that they are just recommendations at this point.

"No determinations have been made yet," said Mark Linabury, the leader of the state's School Choice Office.

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