To Rep. Rojas: Let’s talk about what Sheff is doing for East Hartford

In his Sunday op-ed article in the Courant, state Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, voices support for school integration and the goals of Sheff v. O’Neill, but he complains about the cost of the remedy, and the perceived effects on his hometown of East Hartford.

We appreciate Rep. Rojas’ support and his leadership on many issues in the state, especially his support for regional fair housing solutions and a fairer school finance system. But we think he is wrong on several points in his analysis.

First, Rojas seems to object to the fact that many of the children from East Hartford participating in the regional magnet schools are non-white. However, minority students from suburban towns (including East Hartford) are part of the strength of the Sheff remedy -- giving our magnet schools socioeconomic diversity that cuts across racial lines.

Second, Rojas’ concerns about the overall cost of the Sheff remedy suffer from the common misunderstanding that these funds represent “extra” money in our system. The truth is that each of the 19,000+ students in the regional magnets and in Open Choice will be receiving full government funding for their K-12 education, regardless of where they attend school.  Whether a student is in a segregated school or an integrated school, either way, the government is paying.

The same is true of construction costs for new magnet schools over the last 20 years. Many of these schools were gut renovations to substandard schools that would have been necessary regardless of the Sheff remedy. We are lucky we had the chance to rebuild these schools as integrated schools, rather than simply spending more public funds on segregation.

Third, Rojas claims that East Hartford is losing money because of the tuition payments it makes for some of the 1,000 students who attend magnet schools. Yet, that cost is offset by savings made possible through the resulting lower enrollment in his district. First among these savings is in state ECS funding, or state aid in the form of education cost-sharing money. East Hartford continues to receive ECS funds for each East Hartford student who attends a Sheff magnet. In short, East Hartford receives state funding for the 1,000 children who are no longer in its district.

Further, East Hartford is saving the cost of teachers who would otherwise be necessary for in-district instruction for the 1,000 students who are now taught out of district.

Also, we hope that Rep. Rojas does not ignore the value of excellent educational opportunities conferred on his constituent families by specialized curricula in magnet schools. Any projection of costs associated with magnet school tuition should fairly account for these off-setting savings and benefits.

Rep. Rojas’ final point, about the importance of housing integration, is a good one. But we need to recognize that integrating housing in our region is a long-term goal that will not happen overnight. We cannot afford to keep generations of children in segregated schools while we wait for the state to take meaningful steps to address suburban exclusionary zoning and reallocate low income housing investment regionally.

In the meantime, the magnet schools are promoting housing integration as part of the economic development of Hartford neighborhoods and encouraging middle class families to stay in the city.

No one said this would be easy. But the Sheff remedy is now giving almost 40 percent of Hartford children the opportunity to attend high quality racially and economically integrated schools. This is not a time to turn back or slow down. We all need to work together to achieve the goals that Rep. Rojas believes in.

 

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