Consequences of a complex school choice system

Posted on

This past Saturday at the Magnet Schools of America Conference here in Hartford, we compared notes with colleagues from other districts at our presentation “Who Chooses Magnet Schools and How: Findings from 3 Studies in Hartford, CT.” The consensus was unanimous – Hartford has one of the most complex choice systems in the country.

Screenshot 2014-05-21 15.56.20Learn more about the consequences of this complexity in who chooses to participate in the magnet lottery process and why in Mira Debs’ presentation “Kids Like Chess Pieces.” Please email with any comments or data to share!

Insights on Schools & Choice: Mira Debs and Robert Cotto Jr.

Posted on

Two new researchers have joined the Cities Suburbs & Schools Project at Trinity College to share their insights on education and housing through our new group blog. Both of my colleagues share a special focus on public school choice programs, such as interdistrict magnet schools, city-suburban transfer programs, and charter schools, which have grown dramatically in the metropolitan Hartford region over the past decade. All of us can benefit from sharper insights and richer evidence on how choice programs may be changing the landscape of equal educational opportunity in the racially and economically divided state of Connecticut.

RobertCottoJr200x200Robert Cotto Jr. recently co-authored a CT Voices report on Choice Watch: Diversity and Access in Connecticut’s School Choice Programs, and he also joined Trinity College community as the Director of Urban Educational Initiatives and Lecturer in the Educational Studies Program. In addition to his work on K-12 policy, Robert previously taught secondary-level social studies for six years at the Metropolitan Learning Center interdistrict magnet school in Bloomfield CT, earned master’s degrees from Harvard Graduate School of Education and Trinity’s American Studies Program, and also serves as an elected member on the Hartford Board of Education.

MiraDebsMira Debs is conducting field research at two Montessori magnet schools in Hartford while writing her dissertation for her Ph.D. degree in the Sociology Department at Yale University. She recently gave a guest lecture at Trinity on “Parent Choice and Involvement on the Ground,” based on preliminary findings from her 18-month qualitative study and interviews with city and suburban parents. In addition to her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, Mira taught high school history for five years at a district school and a charter school in the Boston area, and is a founding member of the first public Montessori school in New Haven, Elm City Montessori, which will open in September 2014.

Learn more from my colleagues on the Cities Suburbs & Schools Project group blog at Follow us with an RSS feed or my Twitter account (@DoughertyJack).

Writing Hartford’s City-Suburban Past with ConnecticutHistory

Posted on editor Clarissa Ceglio and I co-presented “Collaboratively Writing Hartford’s City-Suburban Past” at the Association for the Study of Connecticut History 2014 meeting. Our presentation explains and illustrates how Trinity students have developed and published essays on educational and housing inequalities for this statewide online publication. Check out the students’ essays at

The Effects of “Redlining” on the Hartford Metropolitan Region

Posted on

This essay was developed in the Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar in Fall 2013 and published in March 2014 by See other Trinity student essays.

HOLC Residential Security Map of Hartford Area 1937
HOLC Residential Security Map of Hartford Area 1937. Records of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland – On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs

Contemporary patterns of racial isolation in the Hartford metropolitan region, as elsewhere across the country, stem from a mixture of historic and present-day policies. A number of past policies, promoted by both private and federal interests, encouraged racial segregation. Although these explicitly racist policies are no longer legal, research shows that their legacy often persists well beyond their termination. For example, historical data reveals long-term patterns of inequality that can be traced back to racist zoning codes of the past. Of the housing barriers that ethnic minorities within the US have faced in the 20th century, “redlining” is perhaps the most talked about—and for good reason. Redlining is the nickname given to the practice of rating certain neighborhoods as undesirable investment choices due to their racial and socioeconomic demographics. Banks then used these ratings when determining whether or not to authorize loan transactions for home purchases and improvements in those communities. By effectively directing capital investment away from “redlined” neighborhoods, this practice shaped the demographic patterns as well as the built environments of cities and suburbs across the US.

Formation of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation: Rating Neighborhood Investment Risks
The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) was established through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Legislation in 1933 as a way to combat home foreclosures during the years of the Great Depression. The HOLC created residential security maps to assess the “trend of desirability” in residential areas of Hartford and over 200 other cities during the late 1930s. In other words, the HOLC set out to evaluate the insurance risks associated with investment in order to direct the Federal Home Loan Bank’s (FHLB) underwriting criteria and to provide a detailed guide for mortgage loan investment decisions being made by the newly regulated financial institutions engaged in home mortgage lending. The major issue is that the HOLC utilized the racial and socioeconomic composition of residents—rather than relying on physical property conditions alone–as deciding criteria for determining whether they deemed a neighborhood to be a safe and stable investment for loans. For example, a 1937 HOLC appraisal report for a tract of land near downtown Hartford describes the neighborhood as a “slum area now mainly occupied by Negros.” The appraisal also identifies the residents of this area as predominately “laborers or domestics” and estimates the average annual family income to be around $1,000. This report exemplifies the role of race and class in the HOLC rating system: the neighborhood was given the lowest possible rating (Grade D).

Relationships Between Race and Redlining in the Hartford Region
The HOLC created color-coded maps that delineated four grades of housing: green being the highest rating, followed by blue and yellow, respectively, with red reserved for neighborhoods receiving the lowest ratings, hence the term “redlining.” This mapping system became an institutionalized barrier preventing equal access to property and loans as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and private lenders adopted similar policies and maps in their own underwriting manuals. Thus, the use of race-based criteria to make lending decisions became a wider spread practice. For instance, in the 1936 FHA Underwriting Manual, there are references to “inharmonious racial groups” or “incompatible racial elements” being factors in the decreased ratings assigned to certain neighborhoods. Essentially, the FHA helped perpetuate the notion that the presence of ethnic minorities in a mostly white neighborhood would adversely influence property values.

- University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC)
University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC)

When the 1937 HOLC map is compared to the 1940 map of Racial Change in the Hartford Region (below), two points become clear. First, the region was overwhelmingly white. Second, the two census tracts in Hartford with substantial black populations (tract eight and nine) were both neighborhoods redlined by the HOLC. These redlined neighborhoods were also located in slum areas. So, it is important to ask if the poor quality of the housing, rather than race, determined investment decisions. In other words, were HOLC neighborhood appraisals shaped primarily by the physical housing or by its current inhabitants? The answer is: both factors played a role; however, a comparison between two areas with similar built environments but different demographics provides evidence that a neighborhood’s HOLC rating could be negatively affected by the presence of an “inharmonious racial group.”

Through an examination of HOLC appraisal reports, it is apparent that area B-5 (North End of Hartford) and area C-9 (South End of Hartford) possessed a similar physical character in 1937. Both neighborhoods consisted primarily of two-family houses that were 15 to 20 years old, in fair-good condition, and in a comparable price range. Even the socioeconomic breakdown of the two neighborhoods was close; B-5 had an estimated annual family income of $1,800 and up, while C-9 was estimated at $1,500 and up. However, area B-5 was rated “blue,” while area C-9 received a lower “yellow” rating. This difference in rating can most likely be attributed to the racial composition of the neighborhoods. Both had a small population of Italians, but area B-5 had no black population, while area C-9 contained a black demographic, although slight (approximately 1%). One remark from the appraisal of C-9 confirms the impact of even a small African American presence: “The Negro families are confined to Roosevelt Street. Lenders suggest caution in the selection of loans.” This example demonstrates that the HOLC rating system focused as much on racial composition as it did on the physical quality of neighborhoods.

- University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC)
University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC)

The Legacy of Racialized Housing Barriers
The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which is Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, made redlining on a racial basis an illegal practice. Yet, there is evidence that redlining continued in the Hartford region as late as 1977, manifesting itself as a systematic disinvestment of urban properties by banks and insurance companies. Redlining had serious ramifications for minorities in cities like Hartford. The racialization of space through real estate practices, along with a shift in emphasis from use-value of property (its suitability to filling social needs) to market-value (its potential to be a money-making commodity), linked property value to the racial composition of a neighborhood. New data has reinforced the fall-out caused by redlining. It shows that the neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s are now the areas of lowest opportunity in Hartford. These high poverty areas may be a result of past disinvestment caused by their having been rated in the past as “undesirable” based, in part, on racial factors. In the end, it is clear that simply outlawing racist policies of the past does not necessarily fix the damage already done.

- People, Place and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in CT
People, Place and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in CT

Shaun McGann, a senior at Trinity College during the 2013-2014 academic year, is an urban studies and political science major and a resident of West Hartford.

Learn more
“Federal HOLC ‘Redlining’ Map, Hartford Area, 1937.” University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC), 2012. Link.

“Racial Change in the Hartford Region, 1900-2010.” University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC), 2012. Link.

“Fair Housing at Its Worst: Redlining in Hartford Connecticut, Report 9.” Education/Instruccion, February 7, 1977. Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford. Link.

“First Annual Report of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board Covering Operations of the Federal Home Loan Banks, The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, Federal Savings and Loan Promotion Activities from the Date of Their Creation through December 31, 1933.” United States Government Printing Office, 1934. FRASER: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Link.

Reece, Jason, Samir Gambhir, Jillian Olinger, Matthew Martin, and Mark Harris. “Place, and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in Connecticut: A Report Commissioned by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University, 2009. Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Link.

“Residential Security Map and Area Descriptions, Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, Connecticut.” Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, 1937. Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford. Link.

Dougherty, Jack, and colleagues. On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2011. Link.

Greer, James. “The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation and the Development of the Residential Security Maps.” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (March 2013): 275–296.

Five Minutes that Changed Connecticut: Simon Bernstein and the 1965 Connecticut Education Amendment

Posted on

This essay was developed in the Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar in Fall 2013 and published in Jan 2014 by See other Trinity student essays.

Hartford classroom, 1957
Hartford classroom, 1957 – Hartford Times Collection, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library and Connecticut History Online

Hartford lawyer and Democratic delegate Simon Bernstein stuck out from his political peers at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention. While the Democratic and Republican chairmen of the time were entrenched in a debate over the state’s unequal political representation system, Bernstein dared to dream a little bigger. As a member of the Bloomfield Board of Education, Bernstein recognized that Connecticut was the only state that did not guarantee its citizens a constitutional right to an education. Bernstein thus decided to draft a new amendment to address this problem. After days of being ignored by his Democratic Party superiors and, finally, threatening to confront the media about his concerns, Bernstein’s request was met. Delegates at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention passed Bernstein’s amendment which guarantees free public education to every child. This set the stage for a series of prominent educational lawsuits, including Horton v. Meskill (1970), Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), and Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell (2005).

The Man Behind the Amendment
Bernstein was born on January 17, 1913, in Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating from Trinity College and Harvard Law School, he began his political career in Hartford as a lawyer and Democratic alderman. During his time in Hartford, Bernstein served on the city’s Finance Committee and also actively participated in the 1940′s Zionist movement, a political effort that sought to encourage local lawmakers to support Israel’s fight for its own state. In 1950, Bernstein moved to Bloomfield and was elected to the Bloomfield Board of Education.

Simon Bernstein’s 2011 interview with the Cities Suburbs and Schools Project

In all of his political efforts, Bernstein proved he was not afraid to confront difficult issues that others were hesitant to address. For example, in 1947, Bernstein took on a legal case involving a racially restrictive covenant, a term used to describe real estate agreements that prohibit people of a specific race from occupying a property. This covenant, in particular, limited a property sale in the West Hartford area to “non-Semitic persons of the Caucasian race.” The Hartford Courantpublished an article about Bernstein on March 28, 1947, which wrote that Bernstein felt the covenant’s racially specific language was “against public policy.” Bernstein eventually managed to get this phrasing erased from the original property agreement, making him the first person in Connecticut to successfully address a legal case of this kind.

The Creation and Impact of the Education Amendment
One reason why Bernstein’s peers at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention attempted to stifle his enthusiasm for including an education amendment was that they were focused on only one task: revising the state’s system of political representation. Connecticut’s representation system needed to be fixed as a consequence of the 1964 United States Supreme Court ruling in Reynolds v. Sims. The Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause required state legislatures to apportion representatives based on each district’s population to ensure that all citizens are equally represented. This “one man, one vote” law thus made Connecticut’s system—two representatives for every district regardless of population—unconstitutional.

Because the sole purpose of the Convention was to align Connecticut’s representation system with Reynolds v. Sims, John Bailey, the influential Democratic chairman, had little interest in seeing any proposals regarding schools. However, this did not stop Bernstein from voicing his concerns about Connecticut’s lack of a constitutional guarantee to education: “I was enough of a history student of law, a lawyer, to know that once a convention is called for the state or national, nothing is irrelevant,” Bernstein stated in an interview. Rather than accept the legislature’s preplanned agenda, Bernstein chose to challenge his political superiors.

In order to gain the legislature’s attention, Bernstein repeatedly asked Bailey to consider his proposal and also threatened to discuss his frustration with the media. In the end, it was this threat that worked. Bailey granted Bernstein a meager 5 minutes to draft a proposal in an effort to quickly return to the discussion on political representation. Bernstein’s amendment, which he scribbled onto a scrap of paper in order to make his 5-minute deadline, is general because Bernstein believed the language of the Constitution should reflect overall principles and ideas. It states that, “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

1965 Education Amendment draft

Bernstein was given only minutes to draft his proposal for what is known today as the 1965 Education Amendment. The above image is a facsimile of the document. The actual draft of the Article is held at the Connecticut State Library.

Although the world “equal” is not explicitly written in the amendment, its inference has been used as a foundation for nationally recognized educational inequality lawsuits such as Horton v. Meskill (1970), Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), and Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell (2005). At the time of Horton v. Meskill, Connecticut supplied school districts with $250 per child, forcing towns to rely heavily on local property taxes for additional funding. The Horton plaintiffs used Bernstein’s amendment to argue that this system was unconstitutional because it meant educational quality varied considerably from poorer to wealthier towns. Sheff v. O’Neill used Bernstein’s amendment to prove that the extreme racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of the Hartford school district left its schoolchildren, and suburban schoolchildren, with an insufficient education that the state was required to remedy. The CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit used the 1965 Educational Amendment to argue that Connecticut’s system for funding public schools was not only inadequate but also disproportionately harmed minority schoolchildren by diminishing their ability to participate in the democratic process, thrive in college, and reap the monetary rewards of intellectual success.

After his years as a lawyer, Bernstein served as a Connecticut Superior Court Judge for 27 years. He passed away on May 27, 2013, at his home in Sarasota, Florida, at the age of 100. His contribution to Connecticut lives on through the 1965 education amendment that continues to serve as a foundation for educational inequality lawsuits throughout the state.

Elaina Rollins, a sophomore at Trinity College in Hartford during the 2013-2014 academic year, is an Educational Studies major and a resident of Columbus, Ohio.

learn more
“CCJEF V. Rell Overview.” Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, 2013.Link.

Oral History Collection A-Z: Simon Bernstein. Interview by Jack Zaiman. Video, December 22, 1971. Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. Link.

Bernstein, Simon. Oral History Interview on Connecticut Civil Rights (with video) – Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project. Interview by Katie Campbell. Pdf file, video, jpeg, August 1, 2011. Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford. Link.

“PDF: CCJEF (Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding) V. Rell.” The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, n.d. Link.

Collier, Christopher. Connecticut’s Public Schools: A History, 1650-2000. Orange, CT: Clearwater Press, 2009.

Dougherty, Jack, and colleagues. On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2011. Link.

Eaton, Susan E. The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.

“Bernstein Seeks End of Restrictive Clauses.” The Hartford Courant. March 28, 1947, sec. ProQuest – Hartford Courant Historical Newspaper database – Available through Link.

“Simon Bernstein.” The New Haven Register. May 30, 2013.