A startling connection with a Connecticut city

5th May 1995 at 01:00
American education news stories never cease to fascinate me. During a recent 10 days' break in the United States I found that The New York Times (rather like its British namesake these days) rarely failed to have a front-page story about education, and in every case it was the similarities and differences that were so startling.

Take this one, for instance: CONNECTICUT WINS SCHOOL BIAS SUIT Minority concentration isn't state's fault, judge rules. This is the story of the schools of the town of Hartford, Connecticut. The vital statistics make it sound surprisingly like an American counterpart of my own authority, Tower Hamlets.

Of Hartford's 24,000 students, 93 per cent are black or Hispanic, two-thirds live in poverty and half come from homes in which English is not spoken. (In Tower Hamlets we have 35,000 pupils, of whom 68 per cent have an ethnic background other than English, 65 per cent are eligible for free school meals and 60 per cent come from homes where a language other than English is spoken).

A group campaigning for desegregation had brought a lawsuit against the state for failing to take action to prevent the situation in which, it argued, "intense poverty and racial isolation have overwhelmed Hartford's schools with problems that have denied children an educational opportunity equal to that in surrounding suburbs".

At the end of what The New York Times describes as an "anguished six-year debate" a judge decided that the state was not to blame for housing patterns and was not obliged to institute enforced bussing across city lines.

The state, and its Republican governor who had made this an election issue in his campaign last year, expressed themselves as mightily relieved but, apparently, astonished that they had won so clearly. So worried had they been that the courts might decide the other way that they had put considerable efforts over recent years into voluntary integration - the establishment of magnet schools for instance and inter-cultural exchanges between districts and other activities to bring together students of different backgrounds.

The state claimed it had also supported the Hartford schools financially: "Unlike many states, where schools in poor cities with declining tax bases spend much less per pupil than their suburbs, Connecticut spends hundreds of millions a year in aid to Hartford and other cities, enabling them to spend as much as their neighbouring communities."

The campaigners, however, are not satisfied and will not give up. John Brittain, a University of Connecticut law professor and one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs is quoted as saying: "The judge did not at all deal with the distressed educational conditions in Hartford. So we will once more test the question of whether de facto segregation is unconstitutional. " In Tower Hamlets, as elsewhere in Britain, there are also people concerned about deprivation, under performance and racial segregation. Yet the interpretations we draw from the facts and the remedies available to us are very different.

For a start there can be no question about whether or not de facto segregation is unconstitutional in this country. On the contrary, "choice and diversity", well established in our system even before Mr Patten coined the phrase, helps if anything to facilitate it. And there is surprisingly little public concern about it. Certainly we don't see eminent professors of law getting embroiled in legal actions on the issue. (Though perhaps that says something about the different ethos in the universities towards civic leadership - and that is an issue for another day.) On the other hand those of us who do worry about de facto segregation (and some of us do) do so on different grounds from those expressed in the article. It is the social, rather than the educational, damage that is done that is the concern. We have no evidence that schools with no, or few, white children in them perform worse than those where there a racial balance.

If anything, statistics in Tower Hamlets point in the other direction. And indeed I am sure that considerable harm has been done to the self esteem and public perception of ethnic minority communities in the US by the assumption underlying much of the civil rights legislation that black children cannot achieve unless they are in racially mixed schools. The effect of class and poverty, rather than race, has always been under-estimated in the US.

And that perhaps explains the other marked difference, which is over the issue of funding differentials between schools in different areas. This is a hot topic here at the moment, with many local education authorities claiming unfair treatment. But in our case the claimants compare shire county to shire county, metropolitan district to inner London borough.

There has been a cross-party consensus, tacit perhaps but durable, that poor urban areas need to spend more per child than county or suburban ones. Note, by contrast, the proud protest of the state of Connecticut that the funding for urban schools was equal, unlike other states where the inner-city schools got less.

Is it possible that it is this additional funding which has saved most of our inner-city schools, for all their problems and difficulties, from descending into the disorder and demoralisation that seem so very much more common in American cities?

While this will be hard to prove one way or the other, it is a thought worth hanging on to.

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