The provision of an adequate education for all young people living in Connecticut is a requirement, and access to quality education should not be dependent on a child’s family income or zip code.  As reported by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas in her June 2, 2017, piece for the CT Mirror, in the 20 years since the landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill case ordering an end to the racial isolation of Hartford’s public school students, the state has enlisted 42 themed regional magnet schools in an attempt to integrate white suburban youth into minority Hartford student classrooms.

Further reporting by Matthew Kaufmann and Vanessa de la Torre for the Hartford Courant (November 2017) highlights data available through the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), showing that racial/ethnic diversity in Pre-K enrollment is often a major driver for compliance in CREC magnet schools, while classrooms in higher grades remain “hyper-segregated.”  Currently, the CREC model carries with it a price tag of over $330 million per year, with achievement results that are at best mixed and integration results that are largely failing when viewed at the classroom level.

For low-income minority Hartford parents, magnet schools offer an opportunity to place children in what is often perceived, accurately or not, as a more learning-rich and structured academic environment that will subsequently enhance their child’s educational achievement and post-graduation success compared to their neighborhood school.

For Hartford residents, enrollment in most magnet schools is by a lottery system and thousands more applications are received each year than seats made available.  This growing imbalance is at least partly because CREC magnet schools are becoming less “magnetic” in drawing students in higher grades (3-8) from surrounding towns.

With the expansion of school technology and arts grants, suburban school districts increasingly offer specialized opportunities similar to those highlighted in magnet schools, or at least offer students the building blocks of those subject areas with room for self-exploration.  Without the sole-proprietorship of specialized theme-based learning environments, CREC magnet schools are left offering a diverse cultural academic experience to white suburban parents and children who don’t feel they necessarily want it and don’t realize how badly they need it.

In an attempt to open more seats to minority Hartford students, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration is challenging to redefine a “segregated” school, from over 75 percent minority to over 80 percent minority students.  While the intent seems laudable – giving as many as 300 more minority students access to magnet schools – moving the target only masks the underlying reality that over half of Hartford’s minority students still attend racially isolated schools.

Data from the Connecticut State Data Center at UConn show that through 2025, the school-age population of nearly all of the state’s non-urban towns will fall significantly, with urban populations of the same age remaining unchanged or increasing.  Increasingly, suburban and rural towns within the CREC catchment area will have underfunded and underpopulated schools.  Filling these empty seats with minority Hartford students through a match lottery, with Hartford students selecting which districts they would be willing to attend and each district identifying the number of seats available to fill, could be beneficial to all involved, with less isolated environments for minority students and more resources available to shrinking school districts.

Raising academic standards in every Hartford neighborhood school has proven to be a task beyond available resources, and a 20-year investment in the magnet school system has borne mixed-to-failed integration and achievement results.  The mandate from the Sheff vs. O’Neill decision is to close the gap in the quality and equality of academic instruction and resources made available to minority children living in Hartford and other urban areas compared to those in mostly white and more affluent suburban communities just down the road.

Our lack of progress toward this goal is an embarrassment to our state, is unjust to the young residents of Hartford, and demands a redoubled effort.

Tom St. Louis lives in Colchester.

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