Hartford students Zaiyre Cortez and Nazsxir Hall sit in school desks surrounded by empty desks in a demonstration outside the federal court house.

Bridgeport — A federal judge will soon determine whether his court should get involved in how the state awards enrollment to students in high-performing magnet schools located throughout Connecticut.

At issue is whether the lottery’s algorithm – which is designed to limit enrollment of black and Hispanic students in a school to 75 percent – is discriminatory, and therefore a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Hartford students Zaiyre Cortez and Nazsxir Hall sit in school desks surrounded by empty desks in a demonstration outside the federal court house.

The parents who brought the case in federal court take issue with seats being left empty in some high-performing magnet schools when not enough white students apply. On Tuesday, before the judge heard the case in Bridgeport, students and parents staged a demonstration by having children sit at school desks surrounded by empty seats.

“Children should not be left out because they are black or brown,” said LaShawn Robinson, the lead plaintiff in the case. Three of her five children attend magnet schools. The other two never won the lottery.

But civil rights attorneys and those representing the state are asking U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill to give the state courts the opportunity to sort out any concerns before having the federal courts get involved in the state’s 22-year journey toward integrating schools.

The network of 40-plus magnet schools in the Hartford region were opened in response to the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling 22 years ago that minority students in Hartford “suffer daily” from the inequities cause by the severe racial and economic isolation in the schools.

The state also pays for dozens of other magnet schools to operate in Bridgeport, Stamford, Waterbury and other parts of the state. The same 75-25 goal applies to those schools, as well.

Ralph Urban, assistant attorney general, explained to the judge that the 75-25 standard is not a “quota” as the plaintiff’s allege, which is the reason that several schools have exceeded the 75 percent threshold of black and Hispanic enrollment.

“It is a goal. It is not hard and fast,” he said. “It is not a categorical bar.”

Student artwork of themselves with the message, ‘We are all alike. We are all different,’ adorns the wall in a magnet school in Hartford.
Student artwork of themselves with the message, ‘We are all alike. We are all different,’ adorns the wall in a magnet school in Hartford.

At the heart of this case is a difference in philosophies about whether segregation contributes to poor educational outcomes – and whether the magnet schools would remain high-performing if they were to have race-blind lotteries.

Robinson and the other parents involved in the case say diversity isn’t what makes the schools successful, while the civil rights attorneys argue that’s the key ingredient. They argue that having too many high-need students in a school could overwhelm teachers and staff, since it would be difficult for them to address so many needs successfully. Diversity also helps with social skills and critical thinking development, they say.

The state is asking the judge to send the case directly to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

“We think that the state Supreme court should have to wrestle with this very question that is raised here. And this court should give the Connecticut Supreme Court the first crack at resolving this very tough nut,” said Urban.

Civil Rights attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are asking that a trial that is scheduled for February in state superior court be allowed to move forward. They argue the issue of having students waiting on a list for a spot in a school could be resolved if the state would be willing to spend the money to open more magnet schools. The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been unwilling to open additional integrated schools.

“We believe the system needs to be expanded,” said Cara McClellan, an attorney with the NAACP LDF.

But attorney from the Pacific Legal Foundation representing Robinson and other plaintiffs said these parents deserve to have their case heard in federal court since they believe the lottery unfairly leaves them on waiting lists because of their skin color.

Asked by the judge, “Why isn’t reducing racial isolation a compelling state interest?” the plaintiff’s attorney responded that it’s because the federal courts have never set that precedent.

Protection against discrimination – through the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution – is a federal issue, however.

“There are immediate consequences,” said Wen Fa, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, of parents not being offered a seat when too few white students apply to a school. “There are quotas.”

Underhill said he plans to make a decision “soon.”

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

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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