Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mayor Eddie Perez's Big Idea

For residents of Connecticut, the Sheff v. O'Neil case has loomed over the state for the past eleven years, fostering discussion and frightening parents. Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez's column from yesterday's Hartford Courant was a reminder of why we may need to be scared.

For those who may not remember, Sheff v. O'Neil was the landmark Connecticut Supreme Court decision that ordered that the primarily minority Hartford public schools be desegregated to combat the impact of racial and economic isolation. For better or for worse, the Court's decision was not the stuff of Brown v. Board of Ed. - the Supreme Court only ordered the relevant parties to attempt to find a solution among themselves. Eleven years later, as one can imagine, despite numerous attempts at special programs and magnet schools, the problems that necessitated the case in the first place remain.

As I stated to start out this post, Sheff v. O'Neil raises plenty of questions. For Eddie Perez, the answer is simple - take the 29 Hartford county school systems and combine them into one Hartford county school district. Forget the money component of the equation for a second and just think about what a large, unitary, county-wide school district would mean for local schools. I don't know if it would mean the end of the local school, but it certainly would put us on that path.

The real problem of Sheff v. O'Neil - and the real problem we face as a nation when it comes to education, is not about questions of district drawing and not about questions of funding. The real problem is that of poverty and communities that don't support their children. This is, after all, what racial and economic isolation basically mean. We're talking about poor minority kids in the city - And I really do believe there is something to be said about certain environments creating bad schools. Those of different political stripes can argue about why that is, but the fact remains that it is an issue.

But when it comes to solutions, the one proposed by Eddie Perez will never- and should never- see the light of day. The only way to eliminate the racial and economic segregation of kids in the cities would be to eliminate local schools altogether. I know this is not at all what Perez proposes, but the writing is on the wall- Why not have such a large system if you can't move the kids around within it?

Ultimately, I think my biggest problem with this sort of plan is that it amounts to a certain sort of social engineering. We've seen time and time again, that the problems of inner city schools can't be solved with money - and really, this is exactly what Sheff said. The only answer then is to change the very nature of communities and try to figure out how to place children in circumstances which are most beneficial to them. Not only do I not think government is capable of this task, but I think it's important to keep in mind that such changes should never come from above- rather, they should come from the grassroots, from the people themselves.


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