Choose: Integration or neighborhood schools

Most of the time school board members in Connecticut have little more to do than pretend they understand the jargon of their superintendent, rubber-stamp his proposals, capitulate to the unions or ratify the arbitration awards for their contracts, and utter platitudes about education while smiling vacantly through the social promotion from grade to grade.

But every once in a while school board members face the most difficult and gut-wrenching work in government, as members of Manchester's Board of Education discovered the other day - the work of redistricting their school system and removing young families from their neighborhood schools. There is no chance of a happy outcome in that.

After extensive study and public hearings, Manchester's board voted to close two elementary schools, put the town's fifth- and sixth-graders in a single school, and renovate four elementary schools. The plan still requires approval by Manchester's Board of Directors and a referendum's approval of $88 million in bonding, and those approvals are not guaranteed, since nobody likes raising taxes and moving schoolchildren around.

But at least Manchester should understand the primary reason for the disruption: that without redistricting its elementary school population will be racially imbalanced in violation of state law. That is, there are too many children from racial minorities and not enough white children in the schools in the center of town, where the multi-family housing is. To comply with the racial balance law, students in racially disproportionate schools have to be dispersed.

The two schools chosen for closing are the most minority-dominated and third-most minority-dominated schools, just as the school most recently closed by the school board was a minority-dominated school, also in the center of town. These closings may make sense for transportation and administrative purposes, but they also mean that the loss of neighborhood schools will be felt most by the families from racial minorities.

Public policy is saying that racial integration of the school system is more important than preservation of neighborhood elementary schools - that because of residential patterns it's impossible to have both neighborhood schools and integrated schools. That policy may be right - it is crucial to get kids over racial fears and prejudices at an early age - but it's not likely to convince many people in neighborhoods whose heart, the school, is to be torn out.

School prayer

Some myths never die, like the myth that the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited prayer in public schools. An unsuccessful candidate for state representative in last week's special election in New Haven, Charles Ashe III, perpetuated the myth. "When we expel God from our schools, dismiss him from our courts, and evict him from our culture, we have problems," Ashe told the New Haven Independent. He said he would support legislation requiring prayer in school. "I don't see how it would hurt," he said.

Actually, in decisions a half-century ago the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited only government-sponsored prayer in school, on the grounds that the First Amendment's principle of religious liberty applies to the states as well as to the federal government and that government-sponsored prayer is necessarily coercive. But students were already free then and remain free today to pray on their own without disrupting their classes.

That sort of prayer, voluntary and heartfelt, isn't good enough for some people precisely because they want to coerce people into religion, much as the medieval Spanish Inquisition did and today's mullahs in Iran and Saudi Arabia do. People who "don't see how it would hurt" should expose themselves to somebody else's religious coercion for a while and then report back.

Besides, the problem with public schools and with young people generally isn't any lack of prayer but a lack of parents, what with about half of Connecticut's students being raised by only one parent or no parent at all.

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