Robert Cotto on School Choice at Metro Hartford Progress Points Forum

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Last week I attended the Metro Hartford Progress Points Forum on Access to Better Schools, hosted by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and held at my home campus of Trinity College. One of the panelists was my colleague Robert Cotto, the Director of Urban Educational Initiatives, who also teaches courses in our Educational Studies Program and collaborates with me on the Cities Suburbs and Schools Project. In this wide-ranging discussion of public school choice and declining enrollments across the Hartford region, Robert made several comments that helped to re-center the conversation and re-focus the audience’s attention on what matters most. (The Foundation’s YouTube video allows me to point readers to specific segments that stood out in my mind.)

During the first segment (minutes 19:15-23:45), Robert told a story that I had not previously heard, about how he initially became involved in school choice research. After teaching at a magnet school and being elected to the Hartford board of education, he became more immersed in education data. Members of a local organization, Connecticut Parent Power, asked him an important question: Do magnet schools and charter schools do better academically than traditional schools? Robert explained that while he could not directly answer that question, due to data limitations, he could help them to “peel back some of the layers” of choice schools by answering a related question. Using publicly available data, Robert showed that in Connecticut, on average, magnet/charter/technical schools enroll more advantaged student populations than traditional public schools, based on measures such as family income, language, and disability status. His presentation to a parent organization eventually led to his Choice Watch report, published by Connecticut Voices for Children in 2014.

Click the video above to jump to minute 19:15

During a second segment (39:15-45:00) on innovative strategies to break down barriers to educational opportunity, Robert reminded the audience that Connecticut’s interdistrict magnet schools “have solved a number of problems, but created others.” Twenty-five years ago, most families in the Hartford region attended racially segregated schools, based on rigid attendance boundary lines that followed segregated housing patterns. But activists behind the 1989 Sheff school integration case altered our educational landscape, by pressuring the State to create over 40 magnet schools in the region, which use special curricular themes to attract both city and suburban families. Magnet schools “break down the lines of towns,” Robert emphasized, and are so popular that most of Hartford’s political leaders seek to enroll their own children. But magnets have created a second generation of problems that we need to address. Although Connecticut’s public school choice programs (including both magnets and charter schools) are enrolling larger numbers of children, “we are not being very deliberative about [which] students are [attending], and how fair that process is,” nor are we consciously thinking about the implications of shrinking school enrollments across the metropolitan region.

Click the video above to jump to minute 39:15

Near the end of the forum (1:12:00 — 1:14:00), Robert responded to an audience question about school choice opportunities for Hartford students in suburban towns with declining enrollments. Recently, school boards in predominantly White suburbs, such as Glastonbury, have voted to close some of their under-enrolled elementary schools, rather than invite more Hartford children to attend through the state-subsidized Open Choice transfer program. Robert argues that these debates demonstrate White resistance to school integration, and he called for re-centering the discussion at this forum. “If Glastonbury’s enrollment is declining, and they don’t want to open the school, and it’s because they don’t want Black and Brown kids, then fine, close it,” he stated. Robert described how his three-year-old niece, a Hartford resident, “spends two hours on the bus to go to a CREC magnet school” located in a distant suburb. If suburbs resist integration, then the solution is to build more racially and economically diverse school programs here in the higher-density city, rather than the sprawling suburbs. “For me,” he concluded, “school choice programs are helpful to the extent that they are helping kids in Hartford.”

Click the video above to jump to hour/minute 1:12:00