$20M agreement will expand school choice to desegregate Hartford schools

State officials agreed Monday to offer 1,325 more children living in Hartford seats in existing magnet or suburban public schools next school year.

The agreement is the latest result of an 18-year-old Connecticut Supreme Court decision that ordered the state to eliminate the educational inequities caused by the capital city’s segregated schools.

Almost half of Hartford’s 21,500 students now go to school in a “reduced isolated setting,” where no more than 75 percent of the students are minorities. But thousands of Hartford students still attend schools with high concentrations of minority students.

“I get frustrated that the pace has not been as quick as we had wanted, but thousands of kids are benefiting,” said Martha Stone, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “We are still able to move the needle forward so hundreds more students can get a quality educational opportunity who would otherwise be relegated to racially and ethnically segregated and poor performing schools.”

Connecticut has invested heavily in school choice as the vehicle for integrating schools.

Over the last 10 years, the state has spent $1.4 billion to build new magnet schools and renovate existing buildings as a result of the Sheff vs. O’Neill lawsuit, the state Department of Education reports. More than $140 million is spent each year to operate those schools.

Monday’s one-year agreement commits the state to spending nearly $20 million more next year to operate these magnet schools with an additional 1,000 students and to send 325 more Hartford students to a neighboring suburban school through the Open Choice program. The agreement also commits the state to moving Montessori Magnet at Moylan and Hartford Prekindergarten Magnet to new locations and paying for the necessary renovations. The state will also pay to renovate Betances STEM Magnet school at its current location.

While the state agreed to expand seats in existing magnet schools, the Office of the Attorney General refused to agree to open new magnet schools to expand future school-choice options.

“We just can’t agree. The parties cannot come to a resolution,” Stone said during an interview.

So the state and the plaintiffs have agreed to meet with a mediator with the goal of resolving their differences by August 1.

Issues that Stone plans to raise with the mediator include opening new magnet schools in new or existing school buildings, boosting financial incentives so suburban districts voluntarily offer seats to more Hartford students, and requiring charter schools to be integrated.

“There could be a lot of creative solutions” to providing students with an integrated school, Stone said. “The bottom line is we are still only at 47.5 percent [integrated]. That number is not reaching the demand.”

Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr. signed off on the agreement Monday. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office had no immediate comment, but the governor’s proposed budget does include funding for the settlement.

Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education released a statement saying, “We are pleased to have reached this agreement — one that sets a path forward to providing Hartford students with quality educational opportunities in reduced racial isolation settings — and look forward to our continued discussions.”