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.