60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education: Still separate in Connecticut

Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation, racial isolation in many large Connecticut cities is as bad as ever.

A review of minority student enrollment in districts across the state by The Connecticut Mirror has found that much has changed since 1969, when Connecticut changed its laws to comply with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision of May 17, 1954.

Then, only a handful of suburban Connecticut towns had a student population with more than 5 percent minorities. By 2012, data shows, dozens of school districts had integrated schools as more minorities moved into the state.

Minority isolation in some large cities, however, has intensified. In Bridgeport, for example, the percentage of minority students in public schools has risen progressively from 51 percent in 1968, to 84 percent in 1988, to 91 percent in 2013.

The minority isolation that persists in several districts comes as no surprise to state leaders as they work to comply with an 18-year-old Connecticut Supreme Court order to remove the educational inequities in the schools in Hartford caused by the district’s largely minority school population.

State Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said the huge achievement gaps that exist between minority students and their white peers – some of the highest in the nation — are not a coincidence.

“We don’t just find ourselves here. I think we find ourselves here because we’ve made affirmative policy decisions that have put us in this place. And those affirmative policy decision have resulted in neighborhoods that are concentrated” with students who are a minority and/or from low-income families, the senator said last month during a conference on housing policy.

“This has to be a discussion about why people who are in position to make decisions will do things that oppose those things necessary to ensure we have a system up in a way that benefits all of us…There are reasons why you don’t want these individuals in your town,” the former leader of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus told the crowd in Hartford.

A national report by the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, ranked Connecticut poorly in 2012 for its housing, zoning and school assignment policies. Connecticut was the home of three of the top five regions in the country listed for consigning too many low-income students to the worst schools.

The House chairman of the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee – which oversees state laws and proposed legislation relating to housing and zoning – said the problem relates directly to local land use decisions for housing and the high number of jurisdictions operating separate school systems and social service entities.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” said state Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, pointing out the dramatic growth in the number of minority students in his district; from 13 percent in 1982 to 83 percent in 2012.

“Thirty years ago we thought we were completely immune from the social issues that exist in Hartford. Fast forward to today and we’re essentially microcosms of Hartford,” he said.

The setup of school governance in Connecticut – with more than 160 separate school districts operated by local cities and towns – has led to Connecticut’s having some of the most segregated schools in the U.S., according to a UCLA Civil Rights Project report released this month based on U.S. Department of Education data.

The researchers ranked Connecticut seventh worst for the percentage of black students attending schools where the majority of the students are white. Additionally, nearly one in three black students in Connecticut attend schools where at least 90 percent of the students are minorities. The rankings are similarly grim for Latino students.

“Unfortunately we need litigation to force us to do the right thing,” said Dennis Parker, one of the attorneys who successfully sued the state in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case over the segregation of Hartford students.

Since that lawsuit was filed 25 years ago, nearly half of Hartford-resident students have been able to enroll in an integrated school (which the state defines as attending a school where no more than 75 percent of the students are minorities). But thousands of Hartford students are left attending schools with high concentrations of minority students.

Connecticut has invested heavily in school choice as the vehicle for integrating schools.

Over the last 10 years, the state has spent $1.4 billion to build new magnet schools and renovate existing buildings as a result of the Sheff vs. O’Neill lawsuit, the state department reports. More than $140 million is spent each year to operate those schools.

It’s an approach Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said this week he supports.

“Obviously our students should have opportunities to attend a cross section of schools. I am a big believer in a menu, quite frankly, and let parents and students make a choice. And here in the Hartford area and increasingly in New Haven and Bridgeport and Stamford and Danbury and New Britain and New London, students are having that kind of choice. And I find that achievement increases, measurement of achievement increases when parents have more choice,” Malloy said when asked whether the state is doing enough to reduce racial isolation in Connecticut’s schools.

Enrollment in magnet and charter schools across the state has steadily increased over the last several years, but the state budget approved by state legislators for next school year forstalls some of the planned increases in magnet school enrollment as legislators grapple with balancing the state budget.

Each year the state asks school districts around the capitol region each to voluntarily provide Hartford residents enrollment in their higher-performing districts. But each year fewer seats are offered than the department requests. For next school year, the surrounding districts are offering 400 of the 617 requested seats.

Districts like Glastonbury — which the Hartford Courant reports is considering closing two schools because of significant enrollment declines— has committed to providing just six of the 27 seats the State Department of Education asked it provide for Hartford residents.

West Hartford has committed to providing 20 of the 62 seats requested.

Chip Ward, the director of finance and planning for West Hartford Public Schools, said there are a number of factors that determine how many Hartford students they will enroll. Those factors include state funding, he said, observing that the state only provides the district with $3,000 per student when the average cost to educate a student in West Hartford is $13,500.

“Obviously they are not covering the cost,” he said.

West Hartford’s changing demographic also plays a role, he said, as the district works to ensure each of its schools are integrated. Over the last several decades, his district has seen the number of minority and students from low-income families significantly increase.

“We have excellent schools and we have housing affordable and convenient. We are attracting diverse populations,” he said.

Connecticut lawmakers passed the state’s racial imbalance law during a time of civil unrest. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated the previous year and people were rioting in cities across the country.

In an attempt to achieve integration, the law requires districts to report their student demographics for each school. If any school has 25 percent more minorities than the district average, the community must submit a plan to address the imbalance within 60 days. Districts that show no progress in integrating schools or fail to have a plan are subject to losing their state funding.

However, districts that were already overwhelmingly segregated — such as Bloomfield, Bridgeport, East Hartford, New Britain and New Haven — are exempt from the law because their populations are so overwhelmingly made up of minorities and there is no way for them to have a school that has 25 percent more minorities than the district average.

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