John B. King Jr. in New Haven Friday. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /
During a visit to Hartford in 2016, then-U.S. Education Secretary John King praises Elizabeth Horton Sheff, who won a state Supreme Court order to desegregate Hartford area schools in 1996. The case is expected to go back to court soon. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

New Haven — Jamilah Prince-Stewart had a pressing question for President Obama’s education secretary: How does Connecticut fix its broken education system?

“What should we do?” Stewart, who grew up in New Haven, asked John B. King Jr. during a conference in New Haven, attended largely by teachers and special interest groups from around Connecticut.

Before King got a chance to answer, Prince-Stewart made her case that the state’s public school setup is broken. Her experience showed her white parents often don’t want to send their children to school with minority youth, and Connecticut’s fragmented system of 150-plus public school districts enrolls almost the same number of students as the Los Angeles Public School district. Struggling districts aren’t getting the state funding she believes they need to improve.

King took a deep breath and then diagnosed Connecticut – a state that has for years had some of the largest gaps in achievement in the nation between minority students and their peers as well as gulfs in outcomes between low-income students and their better-off classmates.

He started by sharing his experience in Connecticut while he was a student at Yale Law School in the mid-2000s.

The state’s education commissioner at the time visited his class and King remembers asking her about the disparities in achievement. Her response stood out: that the gaps really weren’t concerning because they were the result of white kids doing so well compared to those in other states, and that minority students from Connecticut were underperforming at levels comparable to those in other states.

“I was waiting, thinking there would be more to the answer. Nope,” he said.

He used the anecdote to illustrate what he said he still sees as the problem for Connecticut: “It’s a question of political will.”

That lack of will is preventing spending money on approaches that research has shown works to improve outcomes for students, particularly desegregating schools. (Read the research by clicking here and here.)

“You know, there is a [budget] deficit because of political will. Last I checked there are a lot of rich people in Connecticut,” he said. “We make a choice that we allow some to have extraordinary amounts and others to live in suffocating poverty. That’s a societal choice. We don’t have to choose that… I think people have to have that hard discussion about economic justice.”

Large funding increases are unlikely for Connecticut’s struggling schools. The state’s Supreme Court in January ruled that state lawmakers are spending enough on education to meet the state’s constitutional obligation, and the legislature is facing perennial, yawning budget deficits and is disinclined to raise taxes.

King pointed to the Maryland school district his children attend as a successful model to pursue in the absence of an influx of state money.

“One of the reasons Montgomery County thrived and has more diversity is because of the county system. We have a broad tax base across a range of racial and socioeconomic communities. So, Connecticut could rethink its district lines,” he said.

Connecticut’s approach instead, after a 1996 state Supreme Court in 1996 order to eliminate inequities caused by segregation in Hartford, has been to seek voluntary participation in desegregation efforts.

Two decades later, the state has spent billions building, renovating and operating regional magnet schools whose educational themes and approaches have successfully attracted waves of suburban and urban youth. But half of Hartford’s students still attend segregated schools.

John B. King Jr. in New Haven Friday. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has fought efforts in recent years to offer more seats in desegregated schools, instead saying the state should focus its resources on improving existing neighborhood schools. Angst has grown among city parents who feel their neighborhood schools have been ignored and many of their children have been unable to win seats in a magnet school, which are allocated by lottery.

King while in office visited some of the Hartford region’s desegregated schools, and highlighted those Friday as on the right path.

“The hopeful example is really Hartford,” he said. “You have programs that folks really want… There are reasons the suburban folks will send their kids there.”

But, he continued, “The political reality is, it is hard to lead with, ‘You should do this because it’s good for the society. Parents are most deeply motivated by what is good for their kid. But diversity is good for their kid.”

“Hartford should be scaled up. Instead the political winds are going against what’s happening in Hartford because people say we can’t afford it. Yes you can afford it; you choose not to.”

With an administration unwilling to further integrate Hartford schools, the case is expected to be relitigated as early as June.

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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