The Middle Ground between Voluntary and Mandatory Desegregation

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Imagine you are a Hartford parent with a school age child. You have applied to the Open Choice program in Hartford so that your child might attend a school in the neighboring suburbs. Your child would be able to attend a great suburban school with a quality education and with students who most likely score higher on high stakes tests such as the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) or the Connecticut Academic Performance Tests (CAPTs) than Hartford public school students. The graduation rates are much higher in suburban towns. In the Hartford district, the graduation rate was at a low 79.6% in 20081 ; while just outside its borders, West Hartford had an outstanding graduation rate of 94.8%2. Of the Hartford population over 25 years of age, only 67.1% of the population has a high school degree and 13.6% of its population has a bachelor’s degree or higher as of 20103. The reality is that many students in Hartford don’t finish high school or continue their education after high school, but you insist on obtaining the best education for your child which is outside of Hartford’s borders with the exception of a few Hartford schools. You want your child to get a great education and graduate from high school and some day college. You have formed such high hopes for your child’s future, but only to find out that your child’s application to the Open Choice program has been denied. Your child did not get a seat in a suburban school. What do you do now? This is the reality for many Hartford families who hope their children can receive the best education which is often outside of the Hartford borders, and it was the hopes and dreams of Hartford families that led to the Sheff v. O’Neill case that began a process of providing at least some of Hartford’s minority students with a quality education.

In 1989, several Hartford families filed against the state of Connecticut because their children were racially isolated and were not receiving a quality education. The court ruling on the Sheff v. O’Neill case stated that the state was in violation of a “substantial equal education.” Although schools were not segregated by any law, it was considered defacto segregation and therefore intentional. Since the initial court ruling, the Sheff plaintiffs continue to file motions because Hartford minority students are still racially isolated in schools. The latest Sheff ruling states that 41% of Hartford minority public school students must be in reduced isolated settings 4 . With the progress made in developing magnet schools and sending students to suburban schools, the goal still has not been met. The Sheff ruling has continued to insist on making participation of suburban districts voluntary, but is voluntary enough? I would argue that those involved in the Sheff case must move beyond voluntary participation of districts and push for mandatory participation of suburban districts in the Hartford area by requiring that the district take in a certain percentage of students and while still maintaining voluntary participation of the families in the area.

Source: Missing the Goal: A Visual Guide to Sheff v. O'Neill School Desegregation; from the Cities, Suburbs and Schools Website.

Remedies to reduce the isolation of Hartford public school students have insisted on voluntary participation of districts. The surrounding districts decide whether or not they want to receive Hartford minority students and how many they wish to take in. In the first and second stipulation, the court insisted that districts should participate voluntarily. The stipulation called for the participation of interdistrict magnet schools, state technical schools, charter schools, vocational schools and the Open Choice program in this attempt at desegregating. The first Sheff stipulation specified that by 2007, 30% of Hartford’s minority public schools students would be in schools that were not racially isolated. According to a report by Erica Franskenberg, 13.9% of Hartford minority students were in reduced isolated school settings by 2007 5. The first Sheff remedy was a failure. Now Phase II of the Sheff case requires that 41% of Hartford’s minority public school students be in reduced racially isolated schools by October 2012. As of October 2011, data collected by CREC revealed that only 32.16% of Hartford’s minority public schools students were in racially reduced isolated settings6. When the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools class had a conversation with Phil Tegeler, a lawyer in the Sheff v. O’Neill case, Phil said,

“Yes, I think it [the goal of 41% of Hartford students in reduced racially isolated settings by 2013] will definitely take longer. I don’t think it’s an unrealistic goal. I think there were some problems along the way getting there. I think the state could have done a few things differently7.

Phil along with others involved with the case and the desegregation efforts are well aware that the goal will not be met by 2013. He believes that the state could have met the goal if they had only done things differently.

The attempt at desegregating students in the Hartford area failed due to the stipulation’s insistence on the voluntary participation of Hartford area suburban districts. The stipulations did not require that districts participate in desegregating schools. Phil Tegeler said,

“From the perspective of the Sheff Coalition and lawyers also, there is nothing voluntary about Sheff v. O’Neill. It’s a court mandate. It’s a court order agreement with very specific requirements. When we use the term voluntary, we’re talking about parental choice. Parents are not forced to send their kids to a magnet school. Hartford parents are not forced to bus their kids to a suburban school. It’s a completely voluntary…That’s what we mean by voluntary. There are also some aspects of the order which are a little too voluntary in a bad way which is that towns are still not required to take a certain number of kids, and that’s not what we mean by voluntary. We think that’s a defect of the agreement8.”

According to Tegeler, the remedies of the Sheff v. O’Neill case are not voluntary. The state is responsible and required to desegregate schools. He also emphasized the importance of parental choice in participating in desegregation efforts, but that the real issue of current Sheff remedies is that suburban districts have not been required to take in Hartford minority students. The Hartford area suburban districts that did participate had less than 3% Hartford minority students represented in their total enrollment (see image below).

Source: Insert a longer caption here

The report by Frankenberg showed that suburban schools had many available seats that could be filled while still remaining below capacity. Based on her research, she estimated that there were 12,018 available seats in suburban districts in the 2005-6 school year, but the suburban districts had only taken in 1,125 Hartford minority students9 (see table below).

Source: "Improving and Expanding Hartford's Project Choice Program" from Sheff Movement website.

Since the participation of suburban districts has remained voluntary, many have pushed for incentives in order to get suburban schools to participate in desegregating the Hartford area. In January of this year, 2011, a bill was proposed to increase the financial incentives for participation in Open Choice. The proposed bill No.5665 by Republican Schofield states that Connecticut should halt the construction of magnet schools and instead give the money to receiving districts. The bill proposes that the state award $2,000, $4,000, or $6,000 per out of district student to districts with less than 2%, 2-2.99%, or 3% of out of district students in the total enrollment and that the Commissioner of Education be given the authority to place out of district students in nearby district schools if there are spaces available 10. The proposed bill asks that the state encourage participation of suburban districts by offering more money to schools to offset expenses such as books or transportation for the out of district students, and if the financial incentives are not enough then the authority should be given to place students in suburban classrooms. If the Hartford area schools are to be segregated then the state must move away from the “voluntariness” of participation of suburban districts in desegregation remedies.

Past Sheff remedies have attempted to desegregate schools by making participation of Hartford’s neighboring districts voluntary. Sheff remedies have emphasized that participation is voluntary for districts and families. Yet, the voluntary participation of suburban districts has been the downfall of efforts to desegregate schools. The majority of Hartford students in racially reduced isolated settings are in newly created magnet schools, and it would be more cost effective for the state to have Hartford students go to already existing schools in the suburbs. There are some districts that are not participating in desegregation efforts and the districts that are participating are enrolling less than 3% of Hartford students out of their total enrollment. The Open Choice program has attempted to place Hartford students in suburban schools, but their efforts are not enough if they do not have the support of the state which has the authority to make suburban district participation mandatory. There are thousands of empty seats in suburban schools waiting to be filled, and the state must take action to fill these seats with Hartford students. If any progress is to be made, the Phase III stipulation must make participation of suburban districts mandatory while maintaining the participation of families voluntary.

  1. State of Connecticut, “State Department of Education CEDAR: Graduation Rates.” Accessed December 11, 2011.
  2. IBID
  3. U.S. Census Bureau, “Hartford (city) Quickfacts.” Last modified October 18, 2011.
  4. Sheff v O’Neill, Stipulation and Proposed Order, Connecticut Superior Court, April 4, 2008.
  5. Franskenberg, Erica, “Project Choice Campaign: Improving and Expanding Hartford’s Project Choice Program,” Poverty and Race Research Action Council, September, 2007,
  6. “Summary of Hartford Resident Minority Students in Reduced Isolation Settings,” November 16, 2011,
  7. Interview with Phil Tegeler, November 9, 2011
  8. IBID
  9. Franskenberg, Erica, “Project Choice Campaign: Improving and Expanding Hartford’s Project Choice Program,” Poverty and Race Research Action Council, September, 2007,

2 thoughts on “The Middle Ground between Voluntary and Mandatory Desegregation”

  1. The Middle Ground between Voluntary and Mandatory Desegregation
    By Karina Torres

    1.Does the web project present a clear and compelling story about an important aspect of cities, suburbs, and schools? Does it inspire the reader to think about the topic in a new way?
    I liked how you clearly explained the Sheff ruling and the benchmarks stipulated by the court decision. Also the maps were very informative; I would have liked to have seen more analysis on your part based on what you discovered from Mr. Tegeler’s visit, the readings and websites you consulted. For example, what drives how many seats are offered by suburbs each year? Is there a formula that calculates how many seats a suburb can offer? You spoke about the 3% of seats that suburbs have consistently offered, yet is this 3% cumulative? If not, would this appear as tokenism, did Mr. Tegeler address that on his visit?
    2.Is the reasoning persuasive and well developed? Are the claims supported with appropriate evidence? Is counter-evidence fully considered?
    You offered plenty of background, and current updates on benchmarks, however I would have liked you to have taken a stronger position on your question, and support it. Who’s your audience and how would they benefit form this information? Would mandatory participation reduce the achievement gap? Do you think it’s fair to assume that most Hartford parents would what to send their children to the suburbs?
    3.Does the web project make effective use of the online format by integrating narrative text with digital elements (such as maps, charts, photos, videos, and online source materials)? Are all digital elements credited?
    Are you aware of any longitudinal studies that look at the performance of students that have been attending schools in the suburbs? Is going to school in the suburbs enough to reduce the achievement gap?
    4.Is the writing well organized with smooth transitions between focused paragraphs? Does it include sufficient background for audiences unfamiliar with the topic? Yes

    5.Did the author(s) choose precise and meaningful wording, with fluent syntax and correct grammar and spelling? Yes

    6..Did the author(s) cite sources in a standard academic format (such as Chicago-style footnotes, or MLA/APA in-line citations with a bibliography) so that readers may easily locate them?
    Check your citation to make sure you give proper credit.

  2. Karina, key pieces of source information are missing from parts of your essay, making it very difficult for another reader to find the original items. Would you please add the following?

    a) In your first map image, please add the basic web address to the caption, like this:
    Source: Missing the Goal: A Visual Guide to Sheff v. O’Neill School Desegregation; from the Cities, Suburbs and Schools Project at Trinity College (

    b) Your second map image currently has a placeholder (“Insert a longer caption here”), which needs to be replaced with something similar to above.

    c) Similar to (a) above, the table caption needs to include the basic web address.

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