A sign directed Hartford-area parents to a school choice fair last weekend, where they could enter their child in the lottery to attend a magnet or suburban school. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, which is under a court order to desegregate Hartford schools, is attempting to redefine a segregated school – from one that is more than 75 percent minority to one that is more than 80 percent minority.

The change would raise the threshold at which the state is responsible for stepping in to desegregate a school.

It might also, however, allow about 300 more Hartford minorities to leave low-performing city schools and enroll in some of the region’s themed magnet schools. Or, some of these 300 students might stay in their existing school, which would be considered integrated under the new standard.

In making the change the Malloy administration is testing the limits of a 20-year-old Connecticut Supreme Court decision that found that impoverished minority students in struggling Hartford schools “suffer daily” from their racial isolation.

The high court left it up to the governor’s office to reach agreements on how to desegregate schools with the coalition of parents and civil rights adovates that successfully sued the state in the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation case. In previous years, negotiations led to the opening of 42 themed regional magnet schools that were aimed at attracting white, middle class students from the suburbs to attend schools with city youth.

Twenty years later, half of Hartford’s school-aged residents still attend segregated schools. What’s been left in the wake are frustrated parents who lose the school choice lottery or want a thriving, well-resourced neighborhood school to send their children to.

The Democratic governor has said for more than a year that the state is under no further obligation to offer more students a seat in a desegregated school and that the focus needs to shift to the neighborhood schools

Being more lenient in defining which schools will be considered desegregated is the first step to retreating from previous desegregation agreements.

It also would mean the state education department would run future rounds of the school choice lottery that is designed to allow up to 80 percent of a magnet school be black or Hispanic. For Hartford parents, that’s an estimated 300 additional seats for city youth in high-achieving magnet schools.

For suburban parents, that means they could be signing their children up to attend a magnet school where just one in five students will be white or Asian compared to the current one-in-four standard.

For civil rights activists, the shift the governor is seeking is not acceptable. Numerous loopholes already permit several schools to skirt the 75 percent requirement.

Attorney’s with The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Children’s Advocacy are asking a Superior Court judge to forbid the state from lowering the current 75 percent threshold.

“At stake now is not merely the outcome of the lottery for the 2017-18 year, but rather the unilateral dismantling by the defendants of the entire Sheff regional educational desegregation system,” the attorneys wrote in their motion for an injunction.

Tim Sullivan, Jr. – the current assistant superintendent and incoming superintendent of the Hartford region’s magnet school district – wrote in an affidavit that the 25 percent threshold is appropriate.

“We believe that segregation in schools, as well as racial and socioeconomic isolation, contributes to disparities in resources and educational success. CREC Magnet Schools are representative of the diversity in the region and have consistently reduced the size of Connecticut’s largest and most devastating achievement gaps,” Sullivan wrote.

On the standard that at least one-in-four students be white or asian to be deemed integrated, Sullivan said “We aim to reach this standard in all or our school and believe it is an achievable goal.”

Negotiations are not typically open to the media, but this drama will spill over into court on June 13 and 14 when the judge will consider the injunction request. The hearing was initially set for Monday.

So the lottery that will run next week will use the existing 75 threshold, the state announced Friday.

“In light of the recent court filing, we plan to run the next iteration of the lottery next week using the existing 75-25 ratio, with the understanding that if the court rules in our favor, we can go back and run the lottery again to fill empty seats with Hartford resident students using the 80-20 ratio,” said Abbe Smith, a spokesman for the education department.

The governor’s spokesman said the shift is reasonable.

“The demographics of the Hartford region have changed, and we must adapt to this reality. Over the past 15 years, we have made great progress in increasing the number of Hartford minority students in reduced-isolation settings. However, far too many Hartford resident students are being denied access to empty seats in diverse, high-quality schools,” said Kelly Donnelly. “Together, we have the power to change this. … We all want to see better outcomes for Hartford resident students and these modifications would mean that more of them would have seats in diverse, high-quality schools.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs reject the assertion that seats are being left empty because of the 75 percent requirement, but rather because the state refuses to open additional seats in magnet schools because of costs.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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