How does the State of CT define a racially diverse school for the purpose of school desegregation? And what’s the confusion?

Posted on

Source: Sheff memo to intervene in Robinson v. Wentzell case, 2018.


Yesterday, I provided some background on the Sheff v. O’Neill case and an introduction to how the race-blind regional school choice lottery works in the Hartford, CT region. Today, I’ll focus in on the definition that the Connecticut Court uses to determine whether a school has met the status of a “reduced isolation setting” in the Shelf v. O’Neill case. Put another way, I’ll explain how the Court judges whether a school is considered numerically desegregated.

So how does the State decide when a school is racially diverse school that has reduced racial isolation for Black and Latina/o students?

Over the years, the Sheff plaintiffs, Court, and State of Connecticut have agreed to  define a “reduced isolation” setting to judge whether the latter is fulfilling the Court-ordered settlement of the case. This definition is used to decide whether any magnet, charter, or technical school can be considered a reduced isolation setting. It is not a firm requirement or mandate, but a benchmark to identify schools as a “reduced isolation” setting after the separate race-neutral lottery and enrollment of students.

The most recent Sheff case settlement definition of a reduced isolation setting is a school that has no more than 75% Black and Latina/o students. For the math nerds, this means a school that is within one standard deviation of the region’s racial composition. Here’s what the 2013 settlement states:

A Voluntary Interdistrict Program, as identified herein, shall be deemed to provide a reduced-isolation setting if its enrollment is such that the percentage of enrolled students who identify themselves as any part Black/African American, or any part Hispanic, does not exceed 75% of the school’s total enrollment. (Sheff et al, 2013, p. 5)

Language matters here. As you can see, this is a definition of how schools are “deemed” to provide a reduced isolation setting. It’s not a firm goal, requirement, or limit on Black and Latina/o students at any particular school.

What happens if a magnet school is deemed to be considered “reduced isolation” setting? These schools can continue to receive magnet operating grants from the State of Connecticut. They also provide evidence to the Court and plaintiffs that the State is fulfilling its agreement to reduce racial isolation of Hartford area students.

What happens if a magnet school is deemed to not be a “reduced isolation” school?

A variety of things can happen.

A district can ask for a waiver from the State saying that the magnet school got close to the definition of reduce isolation and should be counted towards the State’s efforts to reduce racial isolation. A school would then have to submit an “Enrollment Management Plan” to the State showing efforts to attract a racially diverse group of students. (There’s a bit more to, but that’s the gist.)

Also, the State could eventually withhold magnet school grants from a District like Hartford or CREC if they are not even showing good faith efforts to attract a diverse group of students to a particular school. In this case, a magnet school could simply return to being a traditional public school for the Hartford district.   For example, this scenario happened in the case of the Journalism and Media Academy and the Breakthrough 2 School that were magnets and then became traditional public schools again. A district could even operate a non-magnet school as a regional school if it chose to do that, but it wouldn’t get additional State magnet funding.

So what’s the confusion?

The recent Robinson v. Wentzell lawsuit in federal court argues that the reduced isolation setting is a “racial quota.” In addition to the fact that the term “racial quota” is often used as racial “dog-whistle” to undermine civil rights, they are wrong.

The reduced isolation setting is not a requirement, it’s not a limit, and it’s not a quota. Sheff, the State, or Districts aren’t denying students into magnet schools on the basis of their individual or group racial identity.

So what is actually happening?

The State has capped student enrollment at magnet students to that of previous years. So if a hypothetical magnet school enrolled 600 students last year, the State will only provide magnet funds for that amount of students. So after the race-neutral lottery runs, students get their placements and they may accept or not. A few kids might get an placement offer from the wait list or not. Then this hypothetical magnet school might end up with 575 students that accept their placements. At that point, the magnet school might also be considered a “reduced isolation” setting with the students currently enrolled.

So the State and Districts decide that the final enrollment will be 575 students at this magnet school. This way, the State doesn’t have to spend more on magnet funding and the magnet school already meets the definition of reduced-isolation setting.

The Robinson case claims that this is a quota, but in reality, it’s an enrollment cap on students of ALL races from attending magnet school seats. However, the enrollment cap is not discriminatory because it’s simply maintaining an enrollment cap from any students attending regardless of race. Similarly, charter schools have enrollment limits set by the legislature for students of all races. But, as Wendy Lecker writes, a recent federal court judge reaffirmed that there is no federal right to education or an unlimited charter or magnet school expansion in Connecticut.

In closing, the Sheff lottery is a race-neutral way to enroll a diverse group of students in magnet schools and Open Choice. There is a reduced-isolation definition to deem a school racially diverse, but not firm limits or quotas on students by race. And there is a State-imposed cap on any additional students attending magnet schools, regardless of race. If this is so clear, then why is there a lawsuit arguing that the Sheff civil rights remedies are racially discriminatory? Next I’ll talk about the Robinson case trying to undermine the Sheff remedies to school segregation and what is behind the campaign to crush school desegregation in Connecticut.

Post any questions in the comments.

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.

Published by

Robert Cotto Jr.

Robert Cotto, Jr. is a Lecturer in the Educational Studies department. Before his work at Trinity, he was a Senior Policy Fellow in K-12 Education for CT Voices for Children where he published reports on Connecticut’s testing system, public school choice, and K-12 education data and policy. He taught for seven years as a social studies teacher at the Metropolitan Learning Center for Global and International Studies (MLC), an interdistrict magnet school intended to provide a high-quality education and promote racial, ethnic, and economic integration. Born and raised in Connecticut, Mr. Cotto was the first in his family to go to college and he earned his B.A. degree in sociology at Dartmouth College, his Ed.M. at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and an M.A. in American Studies at Trinity College. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in education policy at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education. Robert lives with his wife and son in the Forster Heights area of the Southwest neighborhood in Hartford. Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.