Elizabeth Horton Sheff, with Gov. Ned Lamont behind her, at the settlement announcement. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

Last month, following over two decades of uneven progress toward school desegregation, state officials and civil rights attorneys agreed to a new plan for remedying racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic isolation in metropolitan Hartford’s public schools.

State officials, civil rights leaders, and the Sheff v. O’Neill plaintiffs are optimistic about the new agreement, which commits the state to expanding funding and student access to magnet schools and Open Choice options in order to broaden educational opportunities for Black and Latinx students in Hartford, thousands of whom, for years, have been denied access to limited school choice seats.

As the state takes bolder steps toward expanding Black and Latinx students’ access to magnet schools and Open Choice options, I urge elected leaders and education advocates to attend to how these efforts are also impacting Asian American students—a diverse and growing, but often overlooked, population. 

The marginalization of Asian Americans in the context of school desegregation in Connecticut reflects national patterns of Asian American invisibility in research and policy. In metro Hartford, one explanation for such invisibility is the fact that Asian American students are grouped alongside white students in the minimum 25% enrollment needed for a school to be desegregated. Asian Americans have “counted” toward desegregation since 2013, following years in which schools struggled to meet the previous desegregation standard of at least 25% white students.

Elise Castillo PhD

However, “lumping together” white and Asian American students prevents a more nuanced understanding of how Asian Americans experience race and schooling. Indeed, I have found in my research that Asian American parents in metro Hartford racially identify their children in contrast to whiteness. Many Asian American parents with whom I spoke specifically opted against their majority-white suburban public schools in favor of racially diverse magnet schools, where they believed their children would feel more socially accepted. As one parent noted, “I want my children to feel comfortable… I don’t want my kids to feel that they’re different.”

Asian American invisibility vis-a-vis school desegregation in Connecticut is also tied to the “model minority” stereotype. This narrative frames Asian Americans as hard working and academically successful, and thus reinforces the notion that Asian American students warrant little attention from education policymakers and elected leaders.  

However, the model minority stereotype obscures the experiences of Asian American students who face barriers to accessing quality public schooling. Asian American students from poor families and those speaking languages other than English, such as those that arrived as refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, are more likely to attend poorly funded schools with few college-preparatory courses. In metro Hartford, around 10% of the Asian American population identify as Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, or Hmong. Further, the process of researching and applying to school choice options privileges affluent and English-speaking families—suggesting that many Asian immigrant and refugee families in metro Hartford may face additional barriers to accessing quality school choice options.

One way that the state can counter the persistent invisibility of Asian American students and evaluate the latest Sheff settlement’s impact on this diverse population is to collect disaggregated data on Asian American students. Doing so can reveal a more complete and nuanced picture of how the expansion of magnet school funding and school choice seats is affecting diverse Asian American students. In turn, disaggregated data can help shape future school choice and desegregation initiatives, ensuring that such efforts are targeting resources and opportunities toward the most marginalized Asian American students.

Some Asian American communities oppose data disaggregation, arguing that collecting data on Asian Americans’ specific ethnic or national origins could lead to targeted discrimination and racial profiling—not unlike how the U.S. government singled out Chinese migrants in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II, and targeted South Asian and Muslim American communities in the wake of September 11, 2001. During the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions in Connecticut, state lawmakers proposed bills calling for the prohibition of ethnically disaggregated student data. Hundreds of Asian Americans across the state supported these bills, though neither was ultimately passed or enacted.

Given the history of how government agencies have used data in racially discriminatory ways, and as a Filipina American myself, I understand the perspectives of those who are concerned about the potential harms of disaggregating Asian American student data. But while collecting and employing disaggregated data toward discriminatory ends is illegal, collecting and employing these data in order to uncover disparities in educational opportunity could go a long way toward ensuring that Asian American students —especially those from poor families and those speaking languages other than English— have equitable access to quality public schools. 

Praising the recent Sheff settlement, Gov. Ned Lamont remarked, “This is a way that we’re going to make sure that no kid’s left behind, regardless of race, color or creed.” It’s time for Connecticut’s leaders to ensure that we no longer lose sight of the diversity of Asian American students in the state.

Elise Castillo, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Trinity College. She is a member of the Connecticut chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.