What is the Robinson et al case and why do its supporters want to end school desegregation and civil rights policies in Connecticut?

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Source: Sheff plaintiffs memo, 2018.

Over the last few days, I have discussed a number of aspects of the State of Connecticut’s efforts to racially desegregate schools. In short, the State uses voluntary school choice programs, such as magnet schools to create racially diverse educational settings. But over the past several years, a number of groups have launched a campaign against school desegregation. This post will break down the new Robinson case attempting to undo the civil rights gains made by the Sheff v. O’Neill case.

Earlier this year, parents that reside in Hartford, CT filed a federal lawsuit against the State of CT and Hartford Public Schools claiming that the State’s magnet lottery and reduced isolation definition were racially discriminatory and violated the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The parents and their lawyers allege that because their children have not been accepted to any of the State’s magnet schools, the State has discriminated against their children. To be clear, these are allegations and there is no actual evidence of racial discrimination in the documents, only a certain interpretation of State law. The parents are represented by the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation that works to protect, “private property,” “economic liberty,” and “individual rights” (990 tax form).

This Robinson et al v. Wentzell case has been a focal point in the discussion about the State’s effort to desegregate schools. Through their lawyers, they are asking the federal court to stop the State magnet school lottery as currently designed and stop the use of a definition of reduced isolation used to deem magnet schools racially diverse or not. In other words, the Robinson case seeks to ultimately end the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation remedy as we currently know it in Hartford, Connecticut.

In response, the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation state case filed a motion to intervene in the Robinson federal case. Basically, the Sheff plaintiffs want to intervene because the Robinson case, poorly handled, could gravely impact the Sheff lawsuit. Also, the Sheff team believes that the State is a poor defendant of school desegregation remedies given that Governor and Legislature do not and did not want school desegregation in 1996 or in 2018.

The Sheff plaintiffs are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is a wing of the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S. that defends educational, economic, and racial justice (990 tax form). The Sheff plaintiffs argue that the Robinson case should be dismissed based on many incorrect facts and poor interpretation of the law. Furthermore, the Sheff plaintiffs believe that some of the issues raised in the Robinson case should be resolved in the Connecticut court in February 2019 when it takes up the State’s failure to comply.

Here it’s important to separate the people from the goals and arguments. As far as I can tell, the parents in the Robinson case are sincere in their concern for their children. They also show concern that magnet schools have limited enrollment. They aren’t alone in feeling frustration with the State’s efforts to deliver equal educational opportunity in all schools in Hartford and elsewhere.

However, the Sheff lawyers make a strong argument that the Robinson case argument is wrong on the facts and the law. The lottery for magnet schools is race-neutral and the State defines a racially diverse school through a benchmark rather than direct mandates or limits of students of any particular race. These facts about the system make sure that the State develops racially diverse schools to counteract the effects of school and residential segregation without specifically using racial categories to make that happen. There are no “racial quotas” and children aren’t being denied magnet school enrollment on the basis of race.

So if the magnet lottery is race-neutral and the State only has a benchmark for racially diverse schools, then why is the Robinson group suing the State in federal court over the magnet system?

In the past, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) that represents the Robinson parents has promoted charter schools and the elimination of school desegregation orders that are “race-conscious.” The PLF group has submitted court briefs defending private charter schools use of public facilities in California and other states and it was heavily involved in dismantling school desegregation in places likes Seattle in the Parents Involved case, for example (Sandberg, 2011).

In addition, the CT Parent Union has facilitated Pacific Legal Foundation’s work in Connecticut over the past weeks. In the past, the CT Parent Union has lobbied for a “parent trigger” bill that would allow parents to vote to turn their school into a charter or other privately-managed school.

As the New Haven Independent recently reported, Pacific Legal Foundation is still trying to find other clients beside the Robinson group to help them dismantle school desegregation in Connecticut. As the Independent reported, Pacific Legal wants to find parents in New Haven, ‘”in order to file a suit that could bring down the entire magnet program statewide.” According to the article, CT Parent Union is assisting that effort.

As a side note, it is helpful to look at where these organizations get revenue using public tax form data. It’s unclear where Pacific Legal Foundation gets its funding, but there are some hints that their money from corporations and foundation related to fossil fuel industries, plus other big businesses (No sources listed on 990 tax form). Similarly, it’s unclear how CT Parent Union is funded (no 990 tax form, might not be a 501(c)3 non-profit). The NAACP Legal Defense funds primarily obtains revenue through fundraising, investments, and grants from other civil rights organization. (990 tax form, 2017). The Shelf Movement is a 501(c)3, but does not yet have a 990 tax form.

So how does the Robinson case fit into the Pacific Legal Foundation and CT Parent Union agenda?

The Shelf plaintiffs have advocated  “race-conscious” school choice policies as a means towards numerical school desegregation. Or, put another way, Sheff plaintiffs have advocated for school choice as a means towards a broader societal goal of racial integration. On the other hand, both Pacific Legal Foundation and CT Parent Union advocate for “school choice” as a goal by itself. They believe in “colorblind” choice that doesn’t specifically promote school diversity.  The Robinson case would not require or guarantee the State to place more students in racially diverse magnet schools, but it could open the door for more charter schools, the “colorblind” version of school choice that PLF and CPU like more.

So, here’s a hypothesis.

In Hartford, the Sheff case has used magnet schools as a way towards voluntary school desegregation. Connecticut’s magnet schools are racially diverse through a regional lottery, funding incentives and supports, plus their regional design. Diverse magnet schools in Hartford have thwarted racially segregated and privately-managed charter school growth in the city.

These privately-managed charter schools have grown in Hartford, but not as fast as in places such as New Haven and Bridgeport that do not have a court-ordered desegregation plans. Today, nearly all of the publicly-funded, privately-managed charter schools in Connecticut are racially segregated, lacking the rules and standards for racial diversity used as benchmarks for magnet schools.

If the Robinson case can dismantle the regional magnet school lottery and the reduced isolation definition in Hartford and New Haven, then that paves the way for more “school choice” without racial equity and other safeguards (UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2010). Down the road, that could mean more charter schools in Hartford. In other words, if the State doesn’t have to keep making racially diverse magnet schools in Hartford because of the Sheff remedies, then it would be free to open more racially-segregated, privately-managed charter schools.

Labor rules and public funds are in the background, but important issues too. Magnet schools are public schools that also have unionized teachers. Charter schools typically do not have unionized staff and teachers. Pacific Legal loves charter schools and is not too fond of unionized employees. For example, PLF submitted a supporting brief to undermine unions and working people in the Janus case. Without teachers unions and the same stringent rules for spending public funds as magnet and public schools, there is money to be made in segregated, privately-managed charter schools in a way that is not possible in public schools.

And, while it could just be a coincidence, it’s important to note that one of the plaintiffs in the Robinson case was a founding member of the Board of Directors for a charter school in Hartford that attempted to obtain state approval last year. The State of Connecticut rejected the application, for now (See the Community First Charter School Application to CT SDE, 2017).

This Robinson case is not happening in isolation. There is a broader campaign to dismantle school desegregation in Connecticut that has been brewing for a number of years. To be sure, this campaign exploits frustration by parents with poor implementation of school desegregation by the State of Connecticut and counter-productive education reforms over the last decade. Next, we will take a look at this campaign.

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

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

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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.

How does Connecticut’s Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) lottery work for placement into interdistrict magnet schools and Open Choice? A brief introduction

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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.

Broadening the Discussion About Enrollment in Hartford Region Magnet Schools: What is going on with state funding of magnet schools?

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Connecticut Governor’s Proposed Budget for 2018 & 2019

Source: CT Office of Policy and Management, 2017.

Over the last several months, there has been an organized campaign to undermine school desegregation in Connecticut. Most recently, a lawsuit has been launched challenging desegregation standards used for enrollment in Connecticut’s magnet schools. While some of the debate is related to frustration by parents in navigating school choice in Hartford, other parts are being manufactured with partial assessments of story. While I’ll deal with the lottery, desegregation standards, and profit motives in a later post, I want to broaden the discussion right now to funding of enrollment.

A focal point of the recent controversy has been the issue of the Regional School Choice Office lottery and the assignment of students to these schools to meet desegregation standards. For many, the Sheff v. O’Neill case and desegregation standards are the culprit for magnet schools not accepting more students for enrollment. This is not an completely accurate assessment.

In addition to the student assignment process and desegregation standards, assigning more students to magnet schools also requires dealing with funding and tradeoffs in terms of enrollment, staffing, and use of facilities (e.g. school closures) that have not been given their due consideration.

In this post, let’s talk about funding towards desegregation programs such as magnet schools. If the goal was to have more students in magnet schools, then that goal would have to be funded. But over the last year or two, funding for racially diverse magnet schools has been cut by the State Legislature and Governor.

For example, the 2017 budget implementer cut funding to racially diverse magnet schools in the state overall by $2 million from ’17-’18 to ’18-’19 while increasing funding to racially isolated charter schools by over $6 million (mostly by expanding enrollment, not the per pupil funding amount). In addition, funds towards the Sheff settlement remained flat at $11 million.

On the other hand, the the budget increased funds for the Open Choice program, which may help individual students. Yet, Open Choice financially helps suburban districts more than cities like Hartford, which rely on magnet schools to generate revenue.

Selected Allocations for Education Spending in CT (full list)

Source: CT General Assembly, Public Act 17-2, 2017.

Second, the Legislature and Governor gave the Commissioner authority to restrict funding on magnet schools to the levels of previous years. The 2017 budget implementer for fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19 read as follows:

(6) For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, and within available appropriations, the department may limit payment to an interdistrict magnet school operator to an amount equal to the grant that such magnet school operator was eligible to receive based on the enrollment level of the interdistrict magnet school program on October 1, 2013, October 1, 2015, or October 1, 2016, whichever is lower. Approval of funding for enrollment above such enrollment level shall be prioritized by the department and subject to the commissioner’s approval, including increases in enrollment in an interdistrict magnet school program as a result of planned and approved new grade levels. Any interdistrict magnet school program operating less than full-time, but at least half-time, shall be eligible to receive a grant equal to sixty-five per cent of the grant amount determined pursuant to this subsection.

What this means is a State cap on enrollment in magnet schools to only those experiencing enrollment increases through adding grades levels. Furthermore, any increases in funding for magnets are at the discretion of the commissioner. In part, this has resulted in cuts at magnet schools at CREC and in Hartford as costs rise in those districts. Cuts have also been made in non-magnet schools in these and other districts because magnet funds also assist in funding districts like Hartford in paying for all schools, including non-magnets.

This makes the task of attracting a racially and economically diverse group of families to magnets or non-magnets even more difficult since suburban families or well-off Hartford families can simply decide to keep their kids in local suburban or private schools/programs instead of magnet and non-magnet schools facing deep cuts to staff or programming.

I’m not necessarily arguing for infinite increases on enrollment for magnet schools in Connecticut here. What I’m saying is that we must look beyond the lottery and desegregation standards when thinking about why magnet enrollment is flat or declining.

At least part of the issue is the State has decided to put its money elsewhere such as charter schools and small increases to education cost sharing (e.g. equalization) grants for traditional school districts in 2018 & 2019, for example. Yet, those small increases were diminished by Legislative cuts in the 2018 revisions, particularly to education equalization grants, special education, and other funds.

In sum, even if magnet schools were to add more students and meet their desegregation standards (and if this were desirable or without any additional consequences) there is no guarantee that the State would fund them more because the Legislature and Governor are not going to fund increases to the magnet school grants that also supplement district budgets. And the fallout is that Sheff plaintiffs and case gets much of the blame for flat enrollment at magnet schools, even though the State plays a major, if not, the most important role here. Indeed, it is the State of Connecticut that is supposed to affirmatively address racial segregation and reduce racial isolation caused by State policies in housing and schools.

Have a question about school desegregation? Send it in the comments and maybe I’ll answer it!

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

Walk A Mile In Our Shoes – Milner Parents Demonstrate Walk to SAND School

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Below is a summary of a parent demonstration and explanation of why Milner School parents decided on this walk.

The Hartford Board of Education intends to close Milner School and force families to transfer to struggling schools in the North End such as Wish and SAND. Because transportation would not be provided for all students to the new schools because of grade and distance restrictions, Milner School parents showed what the walk from Milner to SAND is like on June 12, 2018. The streets between the schools are littered with trash, have open drug dealing, and gun violence even in broad daylight. They used the walk to highlight the fact that the Mayor and Board of Education will be forcing their children to walk through this part of the neighborhood everyday starting in 2019-20.

For this walk, parents had a police escort along the way. With police presence, the trip was fairly peaceful. However, shorty after the walk, the police escort was called to a crime scene one street next to where parents walked. It appeared that the SWAT team and at least five other police cars raided a house and there was talk of gun shots fired. This happened directly in between Milner and SAND school where students would have to walk to school everyday if Milner were to close and transportation not provided. This is precisely the parents point: closing Milner school without providing transportation for all kids to new schools is a dangerous policy.

See some photos from the walk here. You can read the Hartford Courant’s report here.

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