Rep. Kupchick hopes to change the state racial imbalance law
FAIRFIELD — Reviewing the state’s racial imbalance law has long been on the mind of state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132.
The state representative — formerly of Fairfield’s Representative Town Meeting and its Board of Education — hopes education officials will come away from a visit to McKinley School on Tuesday morning and feel motivated to review the state’s racial imbalance law, first passed in 1969. Kupchick has attempted to spur a review through legislative channels since she joined the General Assembly in 2011, most recently proposing a bill for an education department review of the law and its current role in Connecticut.
“It was coming to the point where we have this amazing, diverse school that is an amazing resource to the neighborhood,” she said of McKinley and its state-deemed racial imbalance, “and it’s apparently not understood by the bureaucrats in Hartford who look at each of these schools as numbers and not what’s happening.”
McKinley’s enrollment consists of nearly half minority students, while the district elementary school average hovers just more than 25 percentage points lower. The difference leaves Fairfield slightly out of the accepted range of difference between a single school’s minority population and the district’s overall average for schools of the same grade spans.
Despite more than 10 years of plans and attempts, the school has continued to hover just out of accepted range nearly every year.
In January, Kupchick, who was part of early attempts to meet the law’s requirements as a newly-elected Fairfield Board of Education member in 2003 and a former McKinley student and parent herself, wrote to the state Board of Education in support of Fairfield’s racial imbalance plan.
“I believe the state’s racial imbalance law overlooks the big picture (a successful, diverse, popular school) in favor of education policy based solely on race,” she wrote. “While undoubtedly well intentioned, Connecticut’s racial imbalance law is poorly executed; it takes a one-size-fits-all approach to a challenge that has different effects in different communities. In Fairfield, this law has more often than not led to ‘remedies’ that force minority students out of their schools against the wishes of their parents.”
At urging from the state, Fairfield settled on a series of steps to fix the problem primarily through relocating a pre-kindergarten class, upping Open Choice enrollment and possibly implementing a magnet program or redistricting down the line. The state board conditionally approved the plan Jan. 4, asking for Fairfield’s Board of Education to return in 120 days with a timeline and benchmarks of specific action to meet compliance.
For each of the past seven years, Kupchick has introduced a bill to the Connecticut General Assembly’s education committee that would prompt a review of the racial imbalance law. In past years, her bills have laid out a task force of State Board of Education members, legislators, education department officials, NAACP advocates and other stakeholders to review the law’s language, its implementation across the state and its current application.
“Every single year I was told it was a can of worms and no one was interested,” she said.
This year, Kupchick’s attempt gained some traction. The education committee raised its own bill based on the one she introduced, which would ask the Connecticut Department of Education to review the law’s impact on school districts. It did not, however, make it to the committee’s agenda for a vote.
A public hearing on the bill received several written testimonies. Along with Kupchick’s support, the bill received encouragement from education and human rights advocates believing a conversation on the law could lead to further efforts to combat school segregation.
A representative of the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children, however, expressed concern, urging the committee to consider amending the bill so laws and programs addressing racial imbalance would be reviewed with a statewide perspective, considering issues of racial isolation between school districts.
Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell also cautioned the committee.
“While we agree that this study is a very well-intentioned, it would take a considerable amount of time and resources for the Department to complete, which we are not in a position to undertake at this time without significant additional resources,” she wrote in her testimony.
Education committee member Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-133, said while she does not know exactly why the bill did not make it to a committee vote, she believes a preference for bills of action — not study — and other pressing concerns this year including ECS and special education funding influenced the outcome.
Vahey believes a larger conversation on racial imbalance and racial isolation is necessary, looking on a statewide scale in a systemic fashion. In how the law is affecting the town she represents, Vahey said Fairfield is facing the issue of internal racial imbalance because it is more diverse than some of the state’s more homogenous towns.
Kupchick hoped that with state officials, including Wentzell, seeing McKinley firsthand, they would get a sense the elementary school offers a good education and will focus on children’s experiences rather than statistics.
“I feel optimistic that having the cmmissioner and members of the State Board of Education come and actually see what an amazing school McKinley is and see that just because it’s a few kids over a bureaucratic 1969 law percentage, that’s not a reason to upset an entire community,” she said.