Over the last several years, school desegregation as a result of the Sheff v. O’Neill case in Connecticut has been under attack from a variety of corners. In particular, the race-blind Regional School Choice (RSCO) lottery used to assign students to interdistrict magnet school and the Open Choice program has come under attack. So how does this lottery work?
First, a quick bit of background. In 1996, the State of Connecticut Supreme Court sided with the Sheff plaintiffs that the state’s laws about town and district lines (e.g. West Hartford Public Schools only corresponds to town of West Hartford) and attendance laws were to blame, in part, for racial segregation of schools. The Court found this to be unconstitutional according to Connecticut’s constitution. The Court left it up to the legislature to decide how to undo the State’s illegal racial segregation of schools. The Court found that students must at least have the opportunity to attend a racially desegregated setting, but did not specify the remedy.
Rather than eliminate the district lines, the Legislature and then-Governor Rowland chose to expand the use of earlier magnet school and Project Concern “choice” reforms to allow students to voluntarily select schools across district lines in order to create racially diverse schools. The idea of magnet schools was to create schools of sufficient quality and with interesting themes so as to attract a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of people across town and city lines, voluntarily. This was a limited remedy to the core problem of town-district lines that the Legislature and Governor refused to touch.
Fast forward to 2018 and there are dozens of magnet schools that the State uses to reduce racial and economic isolation, which is now a fundamental educational interest of the State of Connecticut. In the Hartford area, these magnet schools are operated by the Capital Regional Education Council, Goodwin College, and the Hartford Public Schools. They are public schools and, in the case of Hartford, are part of the traditional school district. Because there are more students wanting magnet school placement than capacity for enrollment, the State uses a lottery for enrollment.
So how does the enrollment lottery work?
Put simply, any parent of any racial group in Connecticut can apply to an interdistrict magnet school or the Open Choice program in the Hartford area. Parents list up to five preferences of of magnet schools or towns to go for Open Choice, the inter district transfer program. Then the State uses a race-blind lottery to assign students to one of the programs that their parents preferred in their application without explicitly using race as a factor in their assignment. Parents must apply by a deadline to be considered in the yearly lottery.
Although we don’t have the exact mathematical equation of how it works (the State will not provide that info), we have some information scattered from various places available already. For better or worse, there is no one State written document that lists all of the possible factors used for the RSCO placement lottery. (If you find one, then send it along in the comments!)
Based on a variety of sources, we can deduce that the RSCO lottery uses a student’s town of residence (home address), school preferences, sibling attendance, and other non-racial factors to make a school placement (e.g. staff parent, zone or neighborhood, college-student). In the 2015 Sheff settlement, the plaintiffs also recommended that the State consider the use of bilingual education (e.g. ELL) status, disability status, and past application status (e.g. “applied many years, but did not get a spot”), as other factors in the lottery. It is unclear if the State ever adopted this recommendation.
Oftentimes, there are more students than available placements in a school. That results in a waitlist. In the case of a waitlist, students get a placement by their order on waitlist without using the student’s race as a factor.
As the Sheff plaintiffs write, “Sheff remedies involve no racial classifications…no individual student assignment decisions are made based on race. Instead, the lottery considers, among other factors, where applicants live. While the Sheff remedies are race conscious, the administration of the lottery “treats all persons equally” regardless of race. (Sheff et al, 2018, p. 13) “
There are at least three reasons that the State uses this race-blind lottery, which uses student residence as a factor. First, the State is trying to fulfill an important goal of creating racially diverse schools to counteract its own racial discrimination in the still-existing town-district lines that maintain school segregation. However, the politically conservative Supreme Court all but prohibited the use of individual student’s race in assignment to school in order to counter-act the effects of racial discrimination.* So, in response, the State of Connecticut must use a non-racial way of assigning students to magnet schools meant to be racially diverse.
In sum, the Connecticut lottery uses students’ town of residence, school preference, and other factors to assign student a placement at a magnet school. Today’s RSCO lottery has been designed specifically not to use race as a factor in school placement because it’s not allowed by the Supreme Court. As the Sheff plaintiff in a recent brief attests, “The lottery system’s algorithm does not consider race, it instead considers geography as a factor to counteract the impact of segregated housing on school assignments (Sheff et al, 2018, p. 10).” The State uses this system to create racially diverse schools in a way that does not illegally use race as a factor in school assignment.
Next up: Understanding what the Sheff desegregation standard means. This is a separate concept that is not directly connected to the lottery.
Send your questions in the comments section.
* For more on the Supreme Court issues see Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 case. Race can be still used on a very limited basis for enrollment, but it’s beyond the scope of this post.
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.