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

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday again held up the story of a student who graduated from East Hartford High School to push her case for school choice.

East Hartford, however, actually has seen a substantial expansion of school choice options since Michael graduated 17 years ago.

“I quoted him last month, and I will quote him again, because his words are worth repeating,” DeVos told the U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the education department budget. “What Michael’s story is, is the real-ife situation far too many of our students face: They are trapped in an education system, that for whatever reason, is not serving them, and they have no other choices. In 2017, in America, we can – we must – do better.”

DeVos said Michael told her that he had gotten a diploma but not an education at East Hartford High School.

In 2000, when Michael graduated, few residents from East Hartford attended schools of choice such as magnet and charter schools.

But today – in 2017 – a sizable share of East Hartford nearly 8,000 school-aged residents attend schools they enrolled in through a choice lottery.

More than 1,100 East Hartford residents leave the district-run schools to attend a regional magnet school – that’s one-in-seven students. And then there are the hundreds of city residents who attend Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy, a magnet school run by East Hartford that students also enroll in through a lottery.

When Democrat politicians, teachers and union officials rallied at East Hartford High School last week to dispute DeVos’s earlier testimony about Michael before the house budget-writing committee, the IB Academy magnet school was pointed to as evidence the district offers a quality education.

DeVos’s testimony sparked a familiar argument between those who favor school choice as a primary way to improve schools and those who decry cuts to traditional public schools as a big part of the problem.

DeVos and President Trump want districts to push forward with school choice, and the Republican president has proposed a new $1 billion competitive grant called FOCUS – Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success – that they hope will spur expansion of school choice options across the U.S.

But the administration’s budget also drastically cuts other education grants, or eliminates them.

Trump proposes eliminating the $9 million the state receives each year for before- and after-school programs and summer programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. These grants, which run between $25,000 and $200,000 a year, help pay for programs in Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury and numerous other communities. In East Hartford, it would be about a $180,000 cut each year. (See here for which communities.)

The $2.1 billion in federal funding that currently goes to class-size reduction and teacher development efforts would be eliminated, making it the largest cut in the budget proposal for primary and secondary schools. Connecticut and its local districts receive about $25 million each year through these grants. East Hartford, received about $225,000 last year. (See town-by-town grants here.)

“You spent some time today talking about students in Connecticut. And I fundamentally don’t believe that that this administration cares about the outcomes of students at East Hartford High School, because if you did, you wouldn’t be proposing these massive cuts,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who serves on the subcommittee DeVos testified before. “All you’re giving is the opportunity to choose a different school, but the fact of the matter is, that’s not a panacea. …So ultimately, to me, this can’t be about the kids in East Hartford, because if it was, you wouldn’t be taking all this funding away from them.”

Traditional public schools also say diverting resources to increase choice comes at the price of leaving many students behind in struggling neighborhood schools.

“We don’t want to be the district left behind,” Nathan Quesnel, the East Hartford superintendent told a Superior Court judge during a school-funding trial last spring.

In an interview Tuesday, Quesnel said, “The real reality is that as we invest in new schools and new choices, that results in dollars ultimately moving out of a school system who is desperately trying to move the needle forward.’

He said Michael’s story is not a reason to strip resources from a districts like East Hartford.

“Rather than divest in districts like East Hartford we should invest. These are challenges that can be overcome,” he said.

Students throughout Connecticut have lots of choices for which school to attend. One in eight students this school year attend a magnet, charter, vocational or other school of choice. But thousands of students remain in struggling, low-performing schools.

The availability of school choice options can largely be attributed to the state’s Supreme Court, which ordered the legislature in 1996 to eliminate the inequalities created by segregation of Hartford’s black and Hispanic students. The order spurred creation of more than 40 new magnet schools as the state’s chief strategy to get suburban, white students to attend school with city students.

“It’s not like we are a choice-negligent region,” said Casey Cobb, of the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education who has studied school choice models across the country, including in Connecticut, Florida and Milwaukee.

Cobb said research overwhelmingly shows that wide-open school choice models like those in Florida and Milwaukee that use vouchers to allow parents to choose which school their children attend haven’t demonstrated improved outcomes.

“It sounds like a perfect system, but in reality it tends not to be,” he said.

A more controlled school-choice model – like the magnet school system used in the Hartford region – has proven effective in improving outcomes, he said.

“There is evidence that it works,” he said. “That finding is born out in countless other studies. That is the result of controlled school choice.”

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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