Governor Guts

NEAL R. PEIRCE

February 22, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Don't sympathize with me. I'm having a hell of a time,''-- Connecticut's Gov. Lowell P. Weicker proclaimed 14 months ago as opponents reviled him, crowds booed and protesters spat at him in the wake of his hard-won battle to pass the first income tax in Connecticut history.

This year the income tax, a reform that generations of Connecticut politicians avoided like the bubonic plague, will account for $2.3 billion of Connecticut's $8.1 billion revenues. State finances are on a steady keel, the envy of other Northeastern states. The frantic calls for repeal have quieted.

You'd think that one tumultuous struggle a term would be enough for any governor. But the brash and bold Mr. Weicker, an erstwhile Republican senator who won the governorship as an independent in 1990, has now leapt from the frying pan of budget-tax crisis into the fire of school desegregation, race division and city-suburban inequalities.

A state superior court in West Hartford is hearing a case that would force integration of Hartford's 93 percent black and Hispanic schools with the overwhelmingly white school districts in surrounding affluent suburbs.

It's not enough, the plaintiffs say, just to pour more money into inner-city Hartford schools. The real solution has to be merger with the surrounding districts. Otherwise, it's suggested, there's no way to break a system that amounts to ''educational apartheid'' that leaves Hartford's poor children of color packed into an ''enclave of disadvantage.''

The Connecticut pattern of poor, minority-packed city school districts surrounded by affluent white towns and school districts is hardly unique. But it is one of the nation's most extreme. Eighteen urban school districts accommodate 80 percent of Connecticut's minority students; 136 of the state's 166 school districts have minority enrollments from near zero to only 10 percent.

The combination of segregation and the inner cities' deep poverty accounts for school dropout figures much higher, and academic achievement scores dramatically lower, than those in the suburbs.

The governor's easy choice would be to say that this socially and politically explosive issue belongs to the courts, or the legislature.

But Mr. Weicker seems to scorn the standard political escape hatches. In his state-of-the-state message on January 6, he waded in with a plan to integrate schools, not just around Hartford but across Connecticut.

The state had to acknowledge, he said, that it was failing to uphold the state constitution's guarantee of an equal public school education for everyone:

''There are two Connecticuts when it comes to the education of our children, Connecticuts separated by racial and economic divisions. There is a Connecticut of promise, as seen in its suburbs, and a Connecticut of despair, as seen in its poverty-stricken cities.''

Governors are rarely so brutally honest. Even more rarely do they produce tangible programs to address injustices.

''The racial and economic isolation in Connecticut's school system is indisputable,'' said Governor Weicker, quoting a 1990 state commission finding that ''the majority of Connecticut's students are isolated from daily educational contact with students of other races and ethnic groups.''

The state's future economic competitiveness hangs in the balance, he asserted, noting that the future work force will in significant measure be made up of ''the very children who today are at risk of not filling their potential.''

Between now and 2000, the governor noted, Connecticut will build far more jails than schools. Each prisoner costs the state close to $24,000 a year -- enough to provide a Head Start-type program for 10 kids. Eighty percent of jail cells are occupied by high school dropouts.

Governor Weicker would split Connecticut into six education regions and charge each with devising a plan to eliminate ''racially isolated'' schools. Existing school districts would first devise their plans; then a planning board of superintendents, school-board members, teachers and parents in each region would agree on a plan. The state government would be the final arbiter.

Forced busing isn't planned; instead each region is given freedom to reach integration through its own mix of interdistrict magnet schools, school choice and building new regional schools (with heavy state aid).

The big question, of course, is whether the inducements will be compelling enough to draw suburban children into city schools, or to prompt suburban schools to make space for city children. Another barrier: costs which may range into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

And even if poor minority children do get to enroll in integrated schools, it may be tough to increase their achievement levels if they still come to school hungry, from broken homes and violence-afflicted neighborhoods.

One glimmer of hope is that Connecticut's six new school regions mesh with the regions set up to reorganize the state's human-services program. Linked educational and social services for children may be critical to success.

What is refreshing, and so heartening in the Connecticut story, is the adventuresome initiative of a governor who seems less worried about re-election than using the power and influence of his office to grapple with the dilemmas of race, education and social isolation which threaten to tear our society apart.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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