HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The emotionally charged issues of race and education are on the agendas of several Connecticut school boards as officials struggle to seek state-mandated racial balance at elementary schools.
School officials in Fairfield, Greenwich and Groton are proposing changes to plans already in place that are intended to ensure that student population at some elementary schools are within 25 percentage points of the racial makeup of the school district. Hamden is proposing a new plan.
West Hartford has been asked to propose ways to reduce imbalances at two schools, Hamden is submitting a plan to the state and Middletown is bracing for the possibility it may have to come up with a plan for a school next year, said Laura Anastasio, a state Department of Education lawyer who tracks school balance numbers.
Achieving racial balance is required by state law that dates to the late 1960s when schools, businesses and other institutions began dismantling segregation. Each year, state education officials cite about eight districts with schools that are racially imbalanced, requiring a fix.
The drafting of local plans to guarantee a mix of black, Asian, Hispanic and other minority students requires arduous work that can set off passionate debate over issues of quality education and race.
The plans, which can take about six months from the time they’re submitted to when they’re approved by the state, can include building magnet schools that draw in students or redrawing school boundary lines. New boundaries are rarely welcomed by parents and children who are attached to neighborhood schools.
‘‘People buy their homes in a certain neighborhood and kids like where they are and don’t want to be moved to satisfy a legislator,’’ said Anna Povinelli, a Greenwich parent of four students and an opponent of racial balance rules.
School populations shift with demographic changes, aging populations or other movements over time, thus requiring renewed efforts at balance. For example, Middletown reorganized districts a few years ago but one school is out of balance again, Anastasio said. The state warns schools of impending imbalances.
Supporters say achieving such balance promotes diversity that reflects society.
‘‘Any university, any institution of higher education, virtually all institutions reflect the diversity of this nation,’’ said state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat who supports racial balance efforts and is House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. ‘‘If you want a child properly prepared to head off to a 21st-century workplace, they should be exposed to diversity.’’
Opponents say the law and state regulations enforcing school balance distract from providing students with the best education possible.
Povinelli, a parent of four Greenwich students, opposes racial balance rules. ‘‘It’s all about the adults first and the children second,’’ she said.
Greenwich school officials are grappling with an imbalance at two elementary schools where Asian, black and Hispanic students accounted for about 68 percent of the student population in August, more than double the 30 percent district-wide.
Greenwich officials are considering a range of choices, including magnet schools, closing a school, or redistricting. A plan should be in place by 2013, Superintendent William McKersie said.
School officials expect an argument from parents who will resist switching from neighborhood schools, he said.
The imbalances are typically more pronounced in elementary schools that are smaller and more closely reflect neighborhoods. As students consolidate into bigger middle and high schools, their populations become more diverse.
Marianna Cohen, a lawyer and former Greenwich school board member, believes Connecticut’s racial balance law is unconstitutional based on a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that restricted the ability of public school districts to use race to determine which schools students may attend. She said state law uses an ‘‘arbitrary and capricious number’’ to determine racial balance.
However, then-state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal advised the state Board of Education in 2008 to continue enforcing the law. He said the court’s decision prohibits the use of individual classifications based solely on race in student assignment but permits race to be used as a component of diversity, Blumenthal said.
His opinion is the position of Attorney General George Jepsen, a spokeswoman said.