School choice lottery a mystery for parents as desegregation efforts stall

Kaydeann Cameron for the last four years has entered her children in the state-run lottery that determines which students will attend a high-performing magnet school in the Hartford region.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

Kaydeann Cameron, left, with two of her children at a recent school choice fair.

And each year, they haven’t been picked.

“I want them to get into a good school – and if that is outside the district, I am OK with that,” said the mother from the South End of Hartford as she waited to talk to a magnet school official at a recent school choice fair.

What she doesn’t know is the school she is waiting in line for – a top-contender among those she is considering for her daughter – is one of the hardest in which to win a seat. To get to this booth she passed by schools where her children would have a far greater chance of winning a seat.

Nearby, Planar Oskar was going booth-to-booth with pen and paper, asking how many preschool seats each school would have and how many people applied last year. He was approaching only schools that didn’t respond to his emails asking for the data so he could compute which school his son Shiram has the best odds of getting into.

“I want the best chance, but the lottery is just so confusing,” said Oskar, a software manager who lives in Manchester and is entering the lottery for the first time. “I have heard from friends that if you live in Hartford you have a greater chance of winning the lottery, but I don’t know.”

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

Planar Oskar tries to find his odds of his son winning the lottery.

This confusion surrounding who wins the lottery – or doesn’t – has fueled displeasure and distrust among many Hartford residents concerned that the vast network of magnet schools has created a two-tiered education system where thousands of struggling city students are stuck in underperforming neighborhood schools.

It is impossible for families wanting to improve their odds of making an educated choice in the lottery, which ends Wednesday, because the state makes no effort to show lottery results from previous school years. And the state does not give families the formula that determines who wins enrollment.

Information provided to The Mirror by the state education department provides some insight into which schools were almost sure bets in this school year’s lottery and which schools were long shots. The department did not provide the formula it uses to run the lottery, however.

For the current school year, 19,148 children sought a seat in a regional magnet school, and 7,589 were offered enrollment – a 40 percent offer rate. The chances are better for Hartford youths. Forty-nine percent of the 5,900 city youth vying for a seat won, compared with 36 percent of the 13,248 suburban students who entered the lottery.

While Hartford residents accounted for 30 percent of lottery applicants, 38 percent of the available seats were offered to city children.

(See how the odds compared to last school year’s by clicking here.)

The lack of transparency surrounding the lottery’s formula and its results have helped tarnish the lottery’s reputation among parents and fostered the mistaken belief that, overall, the system is set up to benefit better-off suburban kids more than those who live in the city.

Many parents want Hartford neighborhood schools improved so they don’t have to compete for a magnet school seat.

“I don’t understand why our children have to go outside of the district to learn,” Milagros Vega, whose grandchildren attend Hartford neighborhood schools, told the city’s school board last month.

Vega is part of a coalition of parents who supported a plan Hartford Public Schools recently approved to close several neighborhood schools over the next several years in order to focus the district’s resources on the schools that remain.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

Hartford residents wear purple shirts that read “Equity for all” in support of the district’s plan to focus on neighborhood schools.

That plan does not seek to enroll more suburban, middle-class white students in desegregated magnet schools with city students – a retreat from the historic commitment to having more city students attend such schools each year.

By reconfiguring, moving and combining several schools – including some magnets – the Hartford superintendent estimates $15 million could be saved and reinvested in initiatives such as smaller class sizes and non-academic supports that struggling students may need at their local school.

“My vision is for every school to be a community school. We have to look at each school individually and look at their needs,” Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres Rodriguez told the city’s school board before they unanimously approved her consolidation plan.

Julio Flores, a member of the board, explained before the vote that, “It absolutely broke my heart when my boys moved into magnet schools” and were behind academically. He is optimistic focusing the district’s attention on neighborhood schools is what is needed moving forward.

Advocates for desegregation find the lack of dedication to desegregating schools troubling, saying they alleviate many of the challenges schools face when high concentrations of their students are from impoverished homes. Research on the regional magnet school model by both the State Department of Education and researchers from University of Connecticut and Syracuse University show Hartford students in magnet schools outperform their peers in neighborhood schools. (Read the research by clicking here and here.)

Some residents, however, feel neighborhood schools have been ignored for too long and see opportunity.

“We can be on the national map here in America to represent a district that can combine some magnets with some neighborhood schools: Isn’t that a wonderful thing,” Natalie Anglaise, a mother of a fourth-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. School, told the board.

The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is backing Hartford’s decision and has worked with city school officials to develop its consolidation plan. It aligns with a decision the administration made two and a half years ago, in the face of fiscal pressures, to fight efforts to open additional desegregated magnet schools for city students. The schools are expensive for the state to build and an added cost to operate.

The General Assembly has backed the administration’s decision and has cut state funding for each student an integrated magnet school enrolls by 7.5 percent and has not provided money to open any new schools. As a result, the number of city students attending segregated schools has largely stayed the same. Supports such as summer and weekend school offered by regional magnet schools also have been eliminated.

This means that more than half of Hartford’s school-aged children continue to attend segregated schools, defined as those in which at least three-quarters of the students are black or Hispanic.

The network of 40-plus themed magnet schools – designed to lure white, middle-class children to voluntarily enroll in schools with city youth – were opened after the Connecticut Supreme Court found nearly 22 year ago in the landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill case that Hartford’s minority students “suffer daily” from inequities caused by severe racial isolation.

Now, with the state and Hartford making clear that further desegregating schools is not the priority, the question is whether the courts will force the state to further desegregate schools. While no formal trial has been set yet, the question is expected to be relitigated as early as June.

Martha Stone, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the Sheff case, said the lottery data show that more desegregated schools are needed.

“What these numbers clearly demonstrate is the overwhelming demand for a seat in a high quality integrated setting. That the state has put a cap on the number of seats available so far will not be a deterrent for the plaintiffs to cease their efforts,” said Stone. “The plantiffs will continue to push for equal opportunity for every Hartford child who wants a desegregated seat in a magnet or Open Choice program.”

Challenging the lottery…

It’s not the only legal challenge the state faces surrounding this issue.

Two weeks ago the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that advocates for limited government, sued the state in federal court on behalf of parents of 19 Hartford school students, most of whom have lost the lottery multiple times.

They argue a lottery that is designed to desegregate schools to meet racial quotas is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

“Thousands of Hartford’s most needy students suffer under an education bureaucracy that is more concerned with the color of a child’s skin than her academic future,” the lawsuit states. “Every year, hundreds of Hartford’s black and Hispanic students are denied admission to the city’s best schools solely because of their race. Hartford’s world-class magnet schools have the space to educate these students, but they are kept out by a racial quota that reserves 25 percent of the seats at the best schools for students who are white.”

Pacific Legal Fund

Jarod, a Hartford resident who has lost the lottery three times, looks at a magnet school in a video from a conservative advocacy group explaining why his mom and other parents are suing the state.

Under the rules worked out for implementing the Sheff decision, 75 percent minority enrollment has been the upper limit for a school to be deemed desegregated.

A look at the lottery data shows what this means for applicants – and who is left on the waiting lists.

Success in winning a seat varies drastically based on what grade students seek to enroll in. Students generally have the best chance of winning a seat in the earliest grade a school offers, since every seat in those classes is open. For later grades, a seat generally opens only when a student leaves the school. Some schools give preference in the lottery to applicants that already have a sibling attending the desired school or live within a half mile of the school.

The way the school-choice lottery is set up to award the seats reserved for suburban students, the state gives a higher weight to applications from communities where the rate of white and Asian students vying for a seat is higher. This roundabout way of giving white students a greater chance of winning one of the suburban seats is necessary because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to simply assign students to a school based on their race.

But the ratio is not the only thing preventing some of the 42 magnet schools from accepting more black or Hispanic students. For the last four fiscal years, the state also has set caps on how many student seats it will pay for.

Last school year, the schools enrolled 18,243 students – even though they have the capacity to enroll 19,682. That means the schools are operating at 93 percent of capacity, and there are 1,439 empty seats throughout the network.

The district with more magnet schools than any other – operated by the Capitol Region Economic Council (CREC) – has the capacity to enroll 451 additional students. That number would have been almost double, but the state decided to close Two Rivers Magnet High School before this school year.

But demographics do play a role in leaving some seats empty, data provided by the state show. Several schools that fell short of meeting the 75-25 ratio, or were on the verge of falling short, had too many minority students at the front of their wait lists. And so, the decision was made not to offer any more seats because doing so would make the schools more segregated.

The problem is that, for a handful of schools, not enough white families are applying. The regional magnet schools located outside of Hartford have no problem attracting enough city and suburban students. However, some schools, particularly in the North End of Hartford, struggle doing so.

LaShawn Robinson, a mother of four and the lead plaintiff in the Pacific Legal Foundation lawsuit challenging how the lottery is run, explains what this means for her son Jerod, who has lost the lottery three times.

“We have schools right here, the magnet schools in Hartford, with empty seats because families from the suburbs maybe don’t want their families to come in, so those seats just stay empty no matter what – even if I want Jerod to have a seat,” she says on a video explaining the lawsuit. “He cannot get in unless they come in too… It’s like Connecticut said you have to have a white peer in the classroom for a black kid to get educated.”