Separate and Unequal: Sept 22nd event at Stowe Center

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Separate and Unequal: How Do We Achieve Equity in Education?

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Though it has been more than 60 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision ordered schools to desegregate, our educational institutions are still separate and unequal.

How do we create equity in education? How do we ensure everyone has the resources to succeed? 

Join the conversation with featured guests Jose Colon, Hartford Public High School and Robert Cotto, Trinity College and Hartford Board of Education.

When: September 22, 2016, 5:30 – 6 PM Refreshments and 6 – 7:30 PM Discussion

Where:  Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Salons at Stowe (web site), 77 Forest Street, Hartford

Cost: Free Event. Reservations or 860-522-9258, x317.

What happens at a Salon?

Since 2008, the Stowe Center has brought community members together for Salons at Stowe, spirited discussions of contemporary issues to foster engagement and community action.

Salon admission is FREE thanks to our members, donors and CT Department of Economic & Community Development; CT Office of the Arts; Ensworth Charitable Trust; Greater Hartford Arts Council; Hartford Foundation for Public Giving; The Hartford; Lincoln Financial Foundation; and Travelers Foundation.

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

Reflections on Yale EDST 110 Sheff Policy Memos

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Dear Yale EDST 110 students:

Mira Debs asked me to respond to your EDST 110 Sheff policy assignment, where several of you posted memos to advise Commissioner of Education Diana Wentzell on the state’s position in the ongoing Sheff v O’Neill negotiations. In short, your assignment asked you to respond to this prompt:

The Sheff plaintiffs and their supporters have advocated for increased funding to expand magnet school offerings, in order to create more spaces for minority students from Hartford and inner-ring suburbs to attend these generally higher performing schools. However, others have argued that the district and state’s resources would be better spent improving Hartford’s perennially lower-performing non-magnet neighborhood schools. Should the state’s first priority be racial and socio-economic integration, as the Sheff decision declared, or access to high quality schools across-the-board even if they remain segregated?

Several of you posted your hypothetical memos on the public web, which helps to educate many of us about your thinking on these very real issues. I was impressed by many of the insightful arguments and clear evidence you presented to Commissioner Wentzell.

Barbara Santiago focused on ways to improve the implementation of the magnet lottery, which I found compelling, but mostly because I’ve been arguing along similar lines in recent years, so am biased. Eddie Maza argued for expanding magnets by building them in affluent suburbs, which would be politically popular (see long waiting lists for several suburban magnets), but it’s very hard for me to justify this approach because it seems to abandon the city. Jackie Ferro delved into the Lighthouse Schools argument, and the idea about addressing housing and schooling together sounds compelling at first glance. But the longer I have watched the state fumble around with this vague Lighthouse idea in practice, the more doubtful I have become about its viability. Chris Rice argued for a “balanced approach” that called for improving the current school system rather than expanding magnet schools. Good to see attention paid to reducing disparities among applicants and addressing transportation inequities, but it’s hard for me to envision improving access to quality integrated schooling without expanding the number of magnet schools. Ana Barros offered a creative idea by calling for the creation of an advocacy branch within the Hartford Board of Education, but I’m concerned that adding another layer of elected governance might confuse the political accountability issues she identified. Furthermore, in the fight between the Sheff plaintiffs and the state government, the city plays a weak role. If you’re going to challenge governance systems, why not alter the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), where suburban interests outnumber urban interests? Ophelia Hu took a different approach by arguing for the Commissioner to invest in non-magnet neighborhood schools. While I appreciate the arguments about neighborhood identity and the threats posed to them by non-neighborhood magnet schools, this strategy still begs the question: If Governor Malloy’s administration is fighting against funding the Sheff remedy, which is required by Connecticut’s court system, what motivation does he have to fund a non-integrated remedy that has no legal backing? Overall, despite my criticisms above, the students who posted their essays online made me think more deeply about these issues, and to question my own thinking about what might work.

Now let’s jump from your hypothetical memos back to reality: For those of you who argued for making integrated schooling a stronger priority, the Commissioner doesn’t appear to be listening. Over the past two months since your Yale course began, take a closer look at what Governor Malloy’s administration has done about Sheff, acting through his Attorney General’s office and State Department of Education:

1) Connecticut’s executive branch recently declared that the judicial branch should end its role in the Sheff case. In September 2015, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban told Judge Marshall Berger that the court’s oversight of the state’s compliance with the Sheff remedy was no longer necessary. Objecting to his claim was Martha Stone, attorney for the Sheff plaintiffs. “To walk away from court supervision when thousands of kids are not getting the education they deserve would be dereliction of duty,” she responded. As of October 2014, less than 45 percent of Hartford’s Black and Latino students are receiving a high-quality racially integrated education, such as interdistrict magnets or suburban Open Choice schools. Judge Berger was surprised by the state’s abrupt shift, and ordered the two parties to continue negotiations, though no progress has been reported. (See reporting by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas at )

2) In the same courtroom exchange above, the Malloy administration also called for halting all future magnet school construction. “We are not building any more,” Assistant AG Urban told Judge Berger. Instead, Urban stated that “we are growing the Open Choice program,” where suburban districts voluntarily agree to enroll urban students, with financial incentives from the state. But the Open Choice program serves far smaller numbers of Hartford minority students than magnet schools (2,016 versus 6,490, respectively in October 2014). Also, some charge that Open Choice places the burden of integration on minority children by requiring them to travel long distances to outlying suburbs, rather than building integrated magnet schools in the city or near its border (

3) Although the Attorney General’s staff claims to be growing Open Choice, the State Department of Education is reducing its funding. In November 2015, Commissioner Wentzell responded to Governor Malloy’s call to cut $4.5 million dollars from the education budget by recommending a $500,000 reduction for the city-suburban Open Choice Program for integrated schools. (In fact, the entire list of proposed cuts affects only urban students, whether in integrated or segregated schools.) But Wentzell did not change the school funding formula that sends state money to all districts across Connecticut, including many suburbs. Furthermore, she remarked that her proposed cuts “will not impact the ‘core mission’ of the agency,” which leads me to wonder about what she considers to be her top priorities (

Although you’ve written excellent hypothetical memos to Commissioner Wentzell, over the past two months it’s become clearer to me that Governor Malloy wants to get rid of the Sheff case, and she appears to be going along with that plan.

Perhaps we should consider a different writing assignment that better represents the difficult political realities. Rather than advising Commissioner Wentzell, what would happen if you reframed the assignment to pose the question from the perspective of the Sheff plaintiffs, and their lead attorney, Martha Stone? Maybe the writing prompt would look something like this:

Nearly two decades have passed since the 1996 Sheff ruling that affirmed Hartford students’ constitutional right to quality integrated schools. Yet the Sheff plaintiffs and their allies have struggled to pressure Connecticut’s governor and legislature to comply with the state supreme court’s order. The road to a remedy is not even halfway complete, with less than 45 percent of the city’s Black and Latino students enrolled in interdistrict magnet and Open Choice suburban schools. Recently, Democratic Governor Malloy’s administration has sought to remove court oversight of the Sheff remedy, stop new magnet school construction, and reduce Open Choice funding. Given this context, what strategies do you recommend for the Sheff plaintiffs?

Indeed, that’s a harder essay to compose, because it’s written for the people who have less power in this dynamic, not the more powerful ones at the State Capitol. But you’ve given me some ideas about what we all need to work on, and perhaps I do something similar with my students at Trinity next semester.

Housing Mobility App at the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut

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logo_ocaErin Boggs from the Connecticut Open Communities Alliance invited me to co-present at the 36th annual conference of the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut.

Slides from Erin’s presentation:


See also links I shared during my presentation:

CT OCA, Mobility Counseling,

Housing Mobility counseling in Baltimore:

Stefanie DeLuca’s report on Baltimore,

OCA-MobilityAppCT OCA, Mobility App tool, designed to help housing counselors guide housing voucher recipients to higher-opportunity neighborhoods

Jack Dougherty and contributors, Data Visualization for All, open-access book-in-progress,

Jack Dougherty and contributors, On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, open-access book-in-progress, 2015),

Investigating Connecticut School Choice at the State, City, and School Levels

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Research presentation and discussion
Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

12:15 – 1:15pm (common hour)
Hallden Hall, Grand Room 104, Trinity College
Directions: see building #18 on the campus map, adjacent to McCook Hall

Presentation by Stephen Spirou '15 -- photo by John Atashian
Presentation by Stephen Spirou ’15 — photo by John Atashian

Open to the public — Light lunch buffet for the first 30 guests

More than 50,000 students (nearly 1 out of 10) are enrolled in Connecticut’s public choice schools, including interdistrict magnets, charters, vo-tech, and city-suburban transfers. But these choice programs were designed to achieve divergent goals, and attract different types of students and supporters. Working as a team of researchers, we have investigated choice systems at three distinct levels, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, and present our findings to help place these education reform policies and practices in a broader context.

Madeline Perez, University of Saint Joseph

Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs
Robert Cotto, Trinity College
– full report and PowerPoint

Who Chooses? A Comparison of Magnet School Lottery Applicants and Non-Applicants
Stephen Spirou ’15, Diane Zannoni, and Jack Dougherty, Trinity College
presentation slides and full report

‘Untouchable Carrots’?: Marketing School Choice and Realities in Hartford’s Inter-district Magnet Program
Mira Debs, Yale University
– presentation slides

Discussion with the audience

Sponsored by the Educational Studies Program, Trinity College

Mira Debs, Robert Cotto, Diane Zannoni, Madeline Perez, Stephen Spirou ’15, and Jack Dougherty -- photo by John Atashian
Mira Debs, Robert Cotto, Diane Zannoni, Madeline Perez, Stephen Spirou ’15, and Jack Dougherty — photo by John Atashian