No Choice in an “Open Choice” System: English Language Learners Underrepresented and Underfunded in Connecticut’s Choice Schools

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In the 1960’s, the state of Connecticut began bussing urban students to suburban schools, as a part of a school desegregation plan known as “Project Concern.” More than two decades later, Hartford schools were still predominately composed of students of color, while schools in the surrounding suburbs were predominately white. In 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff filed a lawsuit against Connecticut’s then-governor, Richard O’Neill, calling attention to the segregation and inequality of opportunity that characterized Hartford Area schools. Though it took eight years, Connecticut’s Supreme Court finally ruled in her favor, and mandated that the state must attempt to ameliorate this segregation. Despite this victory, not much changed in the years to come. So, in 2000, the plaintiffs returned to the courtroom. The resulting settlement called for expanded (voluntary) participation in the “Open Choice” system (previously known as “Project Concern”) and the formation of additional, public charters and themed magnet schools within Hartford open to students from both Hartford proper and the suburbs. In the 2011-2012 school year, just under 50,000 students were enrolled in one of Connecticut’s choice programs – the majority of these students attended one of 63 interdistrict magnet schools.[1] This new system has been hugely successful in its attempts to promote racial integration within schools[2] – it has even been referred to as “the only successful effort to produce a new legal framework to deal with the reality of metropolitan segregation.”[3] On the other hand, it has been far from inclusive of the state’s large population of nonnative English speakers and has a long way to go before reaching its goal of equal educational opportunity for all students.[4],[5]



The number of English language learners (ELL) in Connecticut is immense, and it is growing rapidly. In 2011-2012, over 30,000 students were considered to be “ELL” (and it is likely that this is an underestimate), making up 5.4% of the state’s total student population.[6] Despite their large presence, ELL students are severely underrepresented in Connecticut’s public choice schools (specifically in magnet, charter and technical schools). In the 2011-2012 school year, 76% of public charters, 64% of magnets, and 56% of technical schools in the Greater Hartford Area (GHA) had substantially lower enrollment percentages of ELL students than the local, traditional public schools in their districts.[7]

Figure 1 Figure 1: Differences in ELL enrollment at three types of choice schools as compared to local public schools. Reprinted, (Cotto & Feder, 2012).[8]

Unfortunately, choice schools have not become any more inclusive in the years since Cotto’s Report. They still enroll significantly lower percentages of ELL students than the traditional public schools in their respective districts. 2013-2014 data from 13 of the 28 GHA districts (as much data as was available) reveal that ELL students are still underrepresented, and especially so in magnet schools. ELL students are no more represented in magnet schools than they were two years ago, and in some cases, they are less so. Currently, the average ELL student-composition across the GHA is 10% for district schools, but only 4% for magnets. To identify districts that did a better job in encouraging ELL enrollment, it is most useful to look at the relative proportions within a particular district, rather than looking at the GHA as a whole. Danbury (25%), Hartford (22%), New London (22%) and Windham (26%) district schools enroll the highest percentages of ELL students. Danbury magnet schools, however, enroll 17% fewer ELL students than their district counterparts; this represents the largest enrollment gap in the GHA.[9] Charter and technical schools also tend to under-enroll ELL students. The average composition of ELL students among Bridgeport’s four public charter schools is only 4%.[10]

 Figure 2

Figure 2: Changes in the mean percentage of student body made up by ELL students at three types of choice schools, as compared to 2014 Connecticut district average. Reprinted with permission from “School Choice Data Analysis” project by Leib Sutcher and Claire Bradach.

When it comes to school choice, ELL students have almost none. Most choice schools do not have bilingual education programs. As of February 2015, less than half of the state’s students requiring ELL support were actually receiving it (approximately 9,897 out of 22,914).[11] As a result, ELL students in Connecticut are, on average, five grade levels below their non-ELL classmates.[12] Based on 8th grade math and reading scores, the achievement gap for ELL students in Connecticut is the worst and second-to-worst in the country.[13] There exist two possible solutions to this devastating achievement gap, the first of which relies on changes to existing policies regarding bilingual education programs.



This past January, a group of concerned stakeholders including teachers, administrators, and members of the Latino and Asian communities held a forum to address the lack of resources for bilingual education. Luckily, a few legislators (find out names) listened to their suggestions and worked with them to write what because known as House Bill 6835, “An Act Concerning English Language Learners.” Aiming to better educational opportunities for ELL students in Connecticut, the original bill proposed changes to existing policies. Two recommendations, in particular, are ones that, if passed, could potentially have a significant and positive impact on the under enrollment of ELL students at choice schools.

Currently, the law goes that only schools with twenty or more ELL students must offer a program of bilingual education[14]. On top of that, to say bilingual education is loosely defined in the statutes would be a gross understatement. H.B. 6835’s originally called for a decrease in this threshold, from twenty students to six. Based on 2013-2014 enrollment data, this decreased minimum would lead to the new bilingual education programs in at least forty additional choice schools in the Hartford Area. This amendment might have even incentivized schools to try to recruit and enroll more English language learners in order to lock down that funding, as well as to increase overall diversity of the school (schools are penalized if they are not composed of at least 25% and at most 75% minority students). After major dissent was expressed at a public hearing On (date), the Joint Education Commission held a public hearing, at which much dissent was expressed, due to some peoples’ financial concerns. Connecticut spends a mere $1.9 million dollars on over 30,000 ELL students every year: a number that comes out to around $50-$60 per student[15] (fact check). Nonetheless, in the resulting substitution bill, the proposed amendment to lower the twenty-person minimum had been thrown out.

The Connecticut Statute for Education also limits the amount of time that a student is allowed to spend in a bilingual education program to just thirty months – If the student is within 30 months of high school graduation, they are not eligible for the services at all. A second, important feature of H.B. 6835, that did make it into the substitution bill, was a two-fold increase in this time frame, from thirty to sixty months. Just last week, on April 29th, the Appropriations Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly voted 36 to 20 in favor of the Joint Education Committee’s substitution bill. [16] H.B. 6835 still has a long way to go – it must pass through both House and Senate before its fate is sealed.



In Connecticut, it’s easy enough to find a magnet school with just about any theme – there are magnet schools for arts, for aerospace and engineering, and for global citizenship. In New Haven, there is a very special magnet school called the John C. Daniels School (JDS). JDS is a dual-language immersion school, and with 19% of its students being ELL, a proportion one percentage point higher than the district average and more than twice that of any other interdistrict magnet school in New Haven.[17] So, if only 19% of students at JDS are ELL, then who are the other 81%? They are native English speakers, and they have chosen to go to JDS to learn Spanish. At JDS, half of classes are taught in English, and half are taught in Spanish. Then, in middle school, students can elect to take either Mandarin or continue on with Spanish.[18] JDS students consistently score above the district average in every subject, with very few exceptions. In 2013, 97% of sixth graders passed the math section of the CMT, putting them ahead of not only their district, but the entire state of Connecticut.[19]

Figure 3

Figure 3: View of main entrance at John C. Daniels Interdistrict Magnet School of International Communication.[20]

JDS is not the only dual-language schools in Connecticut – the Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in in Waterford, and the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London have also been both popular and successful. The creation of additional dual-language magnet schools based on existing models is the best way to address some of the disparities in educational opportunities for English language learners, and it is not so far fetched. A 2013 “Feasibility Study of Two-Way Language Programs,” led by the Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, revealed great amounts of community and business support, and even potential state interest and funding. Dual-language instruction has been shown to contribute to a child’s cognitive development, language skills, career readiness and general global awareness.[21]

With the creation of more bilingual education schools comes the problem of staffing. Connecticut’s stringent certification requirements for bilingual education teachers work against the goal of serving the needs of the state’s large and growing ELL student population. To become certified in bilingual education, a teacher must go to through a fifth year of schooling. However, once certified, they are not paid any more than regular teachers. The state also does not recognize out-of-state certification – only teachers who received their bilingual education certificates in the state of Connecticut are eligible to teach. A bill that is currently on the senate calendar, Bill 1102, addresses these stipulations. If it passes, establishing more of these themed-magnets will become a more feasible prospect: more teachers mean more programs in more schools, and more options for ELL students.

While it is possible that the under-enrollment of ELL students in choice schools may not be the root of the problem, the remediation of this enrollment disparity may have the potential to turn around the achievement gap for English language learners in the state of Connecticut, and both policy changes and the creation of new, dual-language magnet schools are two, very promising solutions.






[1] Cotto, R. & Feder, K. (2014). Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice

Programs. Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT.

[2] Rabe Thomas, J. (2013, November 26). Nearly half the students from Hartford now attend

integrated schools. Retrieved May 3, 2015, from students-hartford-now-attend-integrated-schools/.

[4] See, Plurality Opinion of the State Supreme Court, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding vs. Rell. March, 2009. Available at

[5] Miller, C. & How, H. (2015, March 6). “Inequality in ELL-Enrollment at District versus Magnet Schools in the Greater Hartford Area.  Available at

[6]Hartford Public Schools. Two-Way Language Program Feasibility Study, January 3, 2013.—20130124123318926.pdf.

[7] Ibid 1.

[8] Ibid 1.

Programs. Connecticut Voices for Children. New Haven, CT.

[9] Ibid 5.

[10] MacDonald, A. (2015, March 6). “Angus’s Exercise D.” Available at

[11] Zimmerman, E. (Director) (2015, February 25). Testimony before the Education Committee on Proposed S.B. No. 944 and H.B. 6835. Commission on Children. Lecture conducted from State of Connecticut General Assembly, Hartford, Connecticut. Available at,%20CT%20Commission%20on%20Children-TMY.PDF.

[12] ConnCan: Connecticut Maintains Worst-in-the-Nation Achievement Gap. (2013, November 8). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from

[13] Boesner, B. (2013, November 7). 2013 NAEP Snapshot [PDF document]. Retrieved from


[15] Rodriguez, O. (2015, May 1). Background Information on H.B. 6835 [Telephone interview].

[16] Appropriations Committee – Vote Tally Sheet. (2015, April 29). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from

[17] Ibid 9.

[19] John C. Daniels School Test Scores – New Haven County, CT. (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from

[21] Ibid 6.

20 Ibid 6.




Watching Public School Choice in Connecticut

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Last Saturday, May 17, 2014, was the 60th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education court decision that struck down de jure school segregation. That same day, Mira Debs, Prof. Jack Dougherty, and I gave a presentation entitled, “Who Chooses Magnet Schools? Findings from Three Studies in Hartford, CT.”

So what’s the connection between Brown v. Board of Education and magnet schools in Hartford?

First, public school choice programs (such as charter and interdistrict magnet schools) in Connecticut are all required by Connecticut law to provide children with an equal educational opportunity and to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of students (except technical schools). The exact goals and rules vary by program.

Second, interdistrict magnet schools in Hartford and its suburbs are one of the ways that the State of Connecticut chose to comply with the Sheff v. O’Neill decision, a local court case on public education and racial/ethnic segregation.

As the first presenter, I shared some findings from my “Choice Watch” report that I co-wrote with Kenny Feder for Connecticut Voices for Children. I also provided a short overview of school choice programs here in CT.


The findings on public school choice enrollment are fairly straightforward. In Connecticut:

      • Interdistrict magnet school and regional technical schools tend to be (numerically) racially and economically “integrated” if we used free/reduced price meal eligibility as the measure for the latter. (A note of caution here.)
      • Charter schools in the state tend to be racially hyper-segregated, but not necessarily as isolated in terms of economic status (free and reduced price meal eligibility).
      • All three school choice programs tend to have a lower percentage of children with disabilities and emerging bilingual students (ELL) when compared to their local school district averages.

Why these demographic differences happen is more complex. As Mira writes, maybe the complexity of the school choice system(s) in the Hartford-area is a good place to start looking.