HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The shrinking population of white students in Hartford's suburbs is complicating efforts to comply with Connecticut's landmark school desegregation settlement — and even making it harder for some of the capital city's students to attend new schools created to help meet the racial integration goals set by the lawsuit 25 years ago.
State education officials are currently negotiating the latest changes to the agreement, reached with the plaintiffs after they won a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, but say it is becoming harder to attract white students to Hartford's schools because they're living farther away.
About half the students living in the 22 communities subject to the agreement, according to state officials, are non-white. That's up from about 38 percent in 2008, when the parties negotiated a revised timetable for progress on reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation. Another revision was made last year.
"The state is in the position of, how do you meet the requirements of the State Supreme Court given the fact that the demographics of the region have changed so completely," said Kathleen Demsey, state Department of Education's chief financial officer who worked for years on the issue. "Financially, it's a burden for this transportation system, money that could be used for education is being used to bus kids."
But lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, Sheff vs. O'Neill, say there are still plenty of predominantly white communities in the region that can be drawn from to attract additional students, or where Hartford students can attend school in a racially integrated setting.
"We've made some progress but we still think there's more that can be done," said Dennis Parker, a lawyer for the plaintiffs and director of racial justice programs for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The issue of changing demographics has come up before. In 2013, the parties redefined the standard for diversity, allowing Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders to count toward the 25 percent "white enrollment" threshold. Further changes could be among the proposals in this round of negotiations.
The current agreement expires in June. The groups are conducting confidential talks and would not disclose details of the discussions, except to say a decision is expected soon.
Newly released statistics show 47.5 percent of Hartford's 21,458 minority students are currently enrolled in "reduced-isolation settings," a marked improvement from 11 percent in 2008. That comes after the state spent about $2.25 billion on new magnets and other programs throughout the region over a 10-year period. Yet the plaintiffs contend that progress falls far short of giving every Hartford student the opportunity to learn in a racially integrated setting.
Attorney Martha Stone said the state could create incentives to encourage suburban school districts to take in more Hartford students and foster more collaborative projects involving different entities, such as the proposed elementary magnet aerospace academy in Rocky Hill.
"There are so many different ideas that have been on the table for years that the state has not taken the initiative on," Stone said.
Unlike other states where there has been forced busing and redrawn school districts, Connecticut's settlement relies on voluntary desegregation and additional state funding. Parents inside and outside of Hartford can choose to enter a lottery in order for their children to approximately 45 magnet schools. Meanwhile, Hartford students can also choose to attend suburban public schools.
But the makeup of some suburbs is changing: East Hartford, for example, shifted from 23 percent minority enrollment in 1989, when the lawsuit was first filed, to 84 percent in 2013. Manchester jumped from 12 percent to 60 percent, Windsor from 31 percent to 71 percent, and Bloomfield from 74 to 96 percent.
According to the Department of Education, those four towns have the highest participation in magnet schools. That had the unintended consequence of leaving some magnet school seats empty because of the low number of white applicants made it hard to maintain the desegregation standard.
Last summer, a group of frustrated Hartford parents staged a rally claiming their children didn't get their first, second or third choices in the lottery.
The Sheff Movement, a coalition of parents, educators and citizens, organized the protest. Phil Tegeler, the group's staff director, said the state needs to invest more money to expand the number of available classrooms, as well as the number of schools.
"The demand is much greater than the system right now," he said. "The state needs to be thinking more ambitiously and the state needs to think long-term."