When civil rights attorneys and the state’s top Democratic lawmakers stood side-by-side outside a Connecticut courthouse earlier this month to endorse a new race-blind lottery for offering Hartford children enrollment in desegregated schools, they believed the agreement would fend off a lawsuit waged by a conservative law firm.
On Wednesday, they were proven right when the Pacific Legal Foundation withdrew its federal lawsuit, Robinson v. Wentzell.
“There were no claims remaining,” said Joshua Thompson, a senior attorney at the firm. “I don’t think that the goal of diversity in itself is an improper one. What is, is when the state accomplishes that through intentional racial discrimination.”
At issue in the case was the state’s race-conscious lottery — how the state at times considered the race or ethnicity of students when deciding whether to enroll students. The case occurred in the context of increased scrutiny by the Trump administration and other conservative groups over race-based admission policies for schools and colleges across the country.
In 2018, the U.S. Justice and Education Departments launched a civil rights investigation to determine whether Yale’s affirmative action admissions policies discriminate against white and Asian students. In a similar lawsuit at Harvard, the administration supported Asian students challenging the university’s affirmative action policies.
In the case withdrawn Wednesday, the Pacific Legal Foundation teamed up in 2018 with a group of Hartford parents who had grown increasingly frustrated that their children were not winning spots in a nearby magnet school. They cited times their children were left on wait lists even when the schools had the capacity to enroll more students. Seats in the schools were being left unfilled for two reasons; the state had capped how many spots it would fund or not enough white students had applied, which meant enrolling more minority students would result in the school being labled “racially isolated.”
Earlier this month, civil rights attorneys, Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong announced a milestone agreement in the decades-long Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation case to both lift the cap on how many students the state will fund and to eliminate race-based enrollment.
Instead, enrollment decisions will be based on a family’s socioeconomic background, taking into account things like family income, the highest-level of education completed and other factors.
Because wealth often aligns with or transcends race and ethnicity in Connecticut, basing a lottery on a family’s income and economic background is still expected to produce a diverse student body.
“The purpose of the school choice system is to address racial isolation…. To be clear, addressing racial isolation is still the goal,” said Cara McClellan, assistant counsel with NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
McClellan said she believes the Pacific Legal Foundation’s lawsuit was “misguided” because, in the end, diverse schools for Hartford children will still be the outcome.
With the resolution of Robinson v. Wentzell, the only outstanding lawsuit is Connecticut Parents Union v. Wentzell, a similar, statewide case that challenges enrollment policies at 40 regional magnet schools outside the Hartford region.