Hartford Choice Program Hailed and Questioned

Published April 1, 2009

A multifaceted open-enrollment plan called the All-Choice Program has entered its second year of operation in Hartford, Connecticut, with mixed opinions from experts.

While supporters hail it as a systematic overhaul of the education system, led by visionary political leaders, skeptics question whether it’s really all that comprehensive, and they doubt it will improve education.

“There’s this real sense of optimism,” said Alex Johnston, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), an education advocacy organization based in New Haven and Hartford.

“The first year, parents were very unclear of what the All-Choice Program meant,” Johnston said. “As it rolled out in its second year, they saw how serious the district was about closing bad schools and rolling out new ones, and there’s excitement about that.”

But economist and Trinity College professor Gerald Gunderson said the All-Choice program is the third in a series of court-ordered education reforms, and “not much has changed.”

Debatable Progress

In the mid-1990s a court ordered the city of Hartford and its 95 percent minority school district to desegregate, Gunderson explained. Bureaucracy and resistance from the Connecticut Board of Education have made real change almost impossible, in large part because of teachers union influence, he said.

Johnston disagrees, saying because Hartford’s schools are under mayoral control, real change is achievable.

“It’s a combination of mayoral control and a visionary superintendent,” Johnston said. “There’s a great deal of alignment between both the elected and the appointed leaders of this reform. It really does come down to leadership.”

Choice, Transparency

Johnston said the program has several components:

* Parents can choose any public school within four zones designated by the city. As long as the child lives in the same zone as his chosen school, the district provides transportation; elementary and middle school children attending school in a different zone must find their own.

* The money follows the child, employing a weighted student-funding formula. Children are funded based on their grade level.

* School leaders and teachers are given more autonomy over their budgets and curricula, a move Johnston says forces schools to compete to attract students.

* The district publicly evaluates each school’s performance and holds all schools accountable for students’ academic progress. Johnston said the district closed five schools last year and opened 11 new ones. Failing schools receive help from an intervention team.

But Gunderson said the plan isn’t actually that good, because zoning keeps some parents and children limited to bad schools if they rely on district transportation. He also said the money doesn’t fully follow the students.

“Every time a student leaves Hartford under existing rules, the Hartford School District gains money because they cut the expense and keep the money, so it’s not a fully funded transfer,” Gunderson said.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.