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Connecticut’s coming busing controversy

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School busing, one of the most hated tools of social engineering, may be making a comeback in Connecticut, pursuant to legislation introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. Beginning in 2021 under Senate Bill 454 (“Looney’s Bill”), many children may be riding buses for long distances, killing a cherished American institution – the neighborhood school.

Looney’s Bill would create a commission to merge school districts of towns with populations of less than 40,000 into new or existing regional districts. Only 24 of the state’s 169 towns have populations above this benchmark. The bill provides an exception for regional districts that operate “in a manner similar to the (54) probate (court) districts.” Either way, Looney’s Bill would trigger massive consolidation, all under the guise of “creating a more efficient educational system,” the stated purpose of the bill.

Looney’s Bill is but one page long. It is barely a bill. It hasn’t been through any committees, public hearings or debate in the legislature, so why even pay attention to it?

Because of its authorship. Looney is a veteran Senate leader. Veteran legislative leaders do not introduce bills unlikely to pass. Moreover, Democrats hold supermajorities of 60 percent plus in both chambers of the legislature. So, some version of forced school consolidation is virtually certain to pass.

Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont likely would sign it, since he has said repeatedly that he favors regionalization.

The second reason to pay attention right now is an unusual provision in Looney’s Bill. The bill provides that the commission’s plan will become law even if the legislature does not approve it: “(The commission’s) plan shall become effective statewide for the school year commencing July 1, 2021, if such plan has not been approved by the General Assembly and signed into law on or before July 1, 2020.” Looney will control whether anything comes to a vote in the Senate.

Why would all-powerful Democrats want to launch a massive consolidation initiative, but avoid a vote to approve the ultimate plan? They must expect the final plan will be highly unpopular.

Unless and until Democrats reveal their actual intentions, it is only prudent to assume the worst.

The worst would be that Democrats plan to use the consolidation process to merge successful suburban school districts and failing inner-city school districts.

Failing inner-city schools are the most severe educational problem in the state. Among U.S. states, Connecticut has the worst “achievement gap,” the disparity in scholastic achievement between poor minority inner-city kids and other children in the state.

If the Looney Bill did not address this inner-city problem, many would criticize it for ignoring Connecticut’s greatest education problem.

Democrats would be foolishly overambitious to propose another separate, major initiative for inner-city schools at the same time Looney’s consolidation plan were disrupting the statewide school system with a massive reorganization plan. State and local school administrators can handle only so much in any given period.

How would Looney’s Bill force the consolidation of suburban and urban school districts?

Take Bridgeport as a hypothetical. It is the state’s second-largest city, with about 21,000 schoolchildren with some of the worst achievement scores in the state. Bridgeport has three neighbors, two of which have populations above the threshold of Looney’s Bill. The third is Trumbull (population 36,000), which would need a merger partner.

Likely, Trumbull would prefer to merge with a neighbor more similar demographically and scholastically. However, three neighbors are large enough to be exempt from forced consolidation, and another already has merged with another town. Trumbull’s only other option would be its northern neighbor, Monroe (population 20,000), which might prefer to merge with its northern neighbor, Newtown (population 28,000). So, there might be no other option for the commission but to consolidate Trumbull with Bridgeport.

Once combined, a law already on the books would come into effect. Connecticut’s racial-balance law provides that no school within a district should have a racial composition that deviates more than 25 percent from the district wide average.

Trumbull schoolchildren are 72 percent white, while Bridgeport’s are 83 percent black and Hispanic. Once combined, schools in the new, enlarged district would be so far out of “racial balance” that half measures wouldn’t work. That’s how Looney’s Bill would lead to forced school busing and the death of the neighborhood school.

This is a hypothetical, but it may explain what Democrats intend and why they want to hide the ball as to their true intentions – and why they are setting up maximum non-accountability for their actions.

Just jamming together suburban and inner-city districts would create more problems than it would solve. However, Democrats are opposed to most other solutions, such as expanding charter schools, adopting voucher systems or virtually anything else.

Were, for example, the top-performing 10 percent of students able to attend schools in neighboring districts if their performance exceeded average scores in the neighboring district, meritorious Bridgeport students might find places in successful suburban schools.

Some version of Looney’s Bill is not unlikely to be adopted with at least some measure of the consequences outlined above, and with the same ultimate impact we saw decades ago: white flight. Already, people are fleeing Connecticut. Looney’s Bill would be almost certain to reap the whirlwind, turning modest out-migration into an exodus.

Red Jahncke (Twitter @RedJahncke) is president of Townsend Group International, a business consultancy headquartered in Connecticut.

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