September 2 - 9, 1998

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The City Politic

by Bill Collins

Our Schools Reveal A Lot About Us

He who would
Risk ridicule;
Need only call
For equal schools.

Schools, despite years of reform, remain Connecticut's most glaring symbol of segregation. Though some suburbs are experiencing transitional integration, mostly we still continue to separate ourselves by race and class.

Hartford, as usual, is the clearest example. You may recall that last year its school system failed so abysmally, that the state actually fired the board of education. It then appointed its own trustees... That was a first for Connecticut. And maybe a last, if those trustees don't get better results than they have so far.

Several months ago they fired the old superintendent. She'd been on duty just 14 months, not an unusual tenure in Hartford. They replaced her with two people, and bought out her contract for $240,000. She must have been bad indeed. So must all her predecessors, including that private company, EAI

But behind all the folderol of the "takeover" and the firing lies a simple fact. The state doesn't really want responsibility for Hartford, or anyplace else. It prefers having someone else to blame. Teachers are always a convenient target, as are superintendents, school boards, and blessedly for awhile, EAI. Next we may see these very trustees get bounced too, and yet another new management system set up.

But no new management is likely to improve things much. Consider: Enrollment in Hartford is 95 percent minority, and 80 percent eligible for free lunch. Vast numbers are ill-clothed, ill-housed, and ill-fed. Many speak little English, live in dysfunctional families, and face neighborhoods rife with crime and drugs. Their health care is spotty too.

No education commissioner in his right mind would take over a mess like that. And our commissioner, Ted Sergi, is very much in his right mind. He'll make sure that there's someone between him and the schools at all times. Someone to fire if need be.

To further avoid criticism, the state dutifully pays most of Hartford's bills. As a result, only Greenwich, Westport, and Weston spend more per pupil. Unfortunately, given its demography, Hartford probably needs to spend twice what other schools do. But clearly no one is proposing that, or direct state operation of the schools. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

And now twelve other towns and cities are mad enough to sue the state. They feel short- changed since the General Assembly has so shamefully cheated on touted school funding formula. These towns are putting Horton v. Meskill back in court. Sheff v. O'Neill is already there, of course, since not much has happened to promote intertown integration either.

Meanwhile, inside town borders, magnet schools continue to do good work and are slowly growing. Charter schools have also been a useful token, showing what a motivated and dedicated staff can do. Some even draw kids across those magical municipal boundaries.

But mostly we Nutmeggers stay at home, jealous of our local prerogatives. If Hartford kids end up unemployed or in jail, well, no one said democracy comes cheap. And just to add to our perspective, do you remember Ralph Wallace? He was the Cheshire superintendent who defied the state by refusing to consider adding minorities to his school staff. He called integration, "social engineering."
Well, now Ridgefield has gobbled him up with a $17,000 raise.
Poor Karl Marx. It was just 150 years ago that he proposed universal public education. Little did he know.

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