The Earth shook on March 12.
The Hartford Courant, armed with mountains of statistical and anecdotal evidence, published the first in a series of articles that confirmed what most Hartford parents have known for 20 years: that the Sheff v. O’Neill plan for desegregating Hartford Public Schools is racist to the core.
Yes, folks, Sheff is the embodiment of the very sickness it was intended to cure and it’s all laid out right there in the Courant.
The articles, perhaps the Courant’s best reporting in well more than a decade, don’t come right out and say, “Sheff is racist!” It’s not polite to speak that way in Connecticut. But the stories make it impossible to draw any other conclusion (It walks like a duck; it quacks like a duck, and so on). They reveal how the “random” lottery for placing students in the Sheff magnet schools and the funding mechanism for those schools is rigged to suppress Latino and black enrollment and maximize white enrollment. Latino and black students, who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of Sheff, are actually admitted as backfill after the whites are accommodated.
If ever Gov. Dannel Malloy needed an excuse to cut the state’s $250 million annual expense on Sheff and use that money to dig Connecticut out of a looming $1.7 billion deficit, The Hartford Courant just handed it to him on a silver platter.
To illustrate how the Sheff agreement works to the detriment of Hartford students, one need only look at what happened to High School, Inc., the city’s ultra successful insurance and finance academy, three years ago. That’s when the state and the Sheff plaintiffs, in their infinite wisdom, decided to convert the overwhelmingly non-white Hartford school into a magnet on the theory that white suburbanites would just swarm the place. Until then, High School, Inc. had, with strong support from Travelers Insurance, Aetna, Prudential and other downtown corporations, served as a gateway to business careers for the 400 Hartford resident students enrolled there.
Under Sheff, High School, Inc. was required to enroll a freshman class that was at least 25 percent suburban white for the 2014-2015 school year. When only 11 whites showed up, High School, Inc., had to cut its freshman class size from the usual 100 that enrolled each year to 44 (including the white students) to comply with the Sheff’s white quota requirement. Fifty-six Latino and black students were barred from attending the school because of the color of their skin and the slots were kept vacant.
Fortunately for High School, Inc., the executives and CEOs on it’s advisory board went ballistic when they saw the freshman enrollment figures and used their considerable influence to have the state remove the school’s magnet designation after only one year.
“That’s not what we signed up for,” one of the advisory board members said. “We’re here to help Hartford kids.”
That same scenario of freezing out worthy Latino and black students because of their color repeats itself in magnet school after magnet school. Yet Sheff supporters, who formed a smug little cult called The Sheff Movement, choose to ignore that dirty little detail and denounce anyone who brings it up as a bigot, for undermining the most enlightened school integration plan since Brown v. Board of Education.
So how did The Courant’s sudden epiphany come about after 20 years of ringing endorsements for Sheff.
For the answer to that question, you have to go all the way back to the original 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that the state’s system of districting schools along municipal lines was unconstitutional because it isolated Hartford students by race and ethnicity, thereby denying them access to a good education. The court ordered the state to fix the problem. The state legislature responded by passing a law called “An Act Enhancing Educational Choices and Opportunities,” ordering the state Department of Education to produce a five-year plan for integrating the schools through “voluntary” measures.
The word “voluntary” is key here. It was perhaps the only reason the bill passed. It meant that whites had to willingly consent to letting their children share classroom space non-whites in order for integration to happen. That’s not exactly what the Supreme Court ordered. You could already see where this thing was headed.
Seven years later, the state Department of Education and the plaintiffs in the Sheff case negotiated a plan that called for creating a network of high-end magnet schools — all paid for by the state — that surpassed any of the deluxe public and private school options that suburban whites already had at their disposal. Whites attend these magnet havens on condition that they grant their non-white brethren the privilege of sitting next to them.
All students attending the magnets are chosen by lottery. The initial goal of the agreement was to place 30 percent of Hartford students in a “non-isolated” setting by 2007. But the deal expired before they could reach the goal. In 2008, they negotiated a second agreement to build a ton of additional magnet schools in the city and in the suburbs on the hopes of raising the percentage of Hartford students in “non-isolated” settings to 47. Suburban magnets are under the direction of the Capitol Region Education Council, a private non-profit school management company, that has prospered greatly under Sheff. No less than 25 percent of the students in a city magnet and 66 percent of the students in a suburban magnet have to be white in order for the school to be considered integrated.
Therein lies the fundamental flaw in the Sheff agreement. It is based entirely on the unscientific, intellectually dishonest and, yes, racist theory that if you sit a Latino or black kid in a classroom with a white kid, the Latino or black kid will become smarter. Moreover, it firmly embraces the belief that whites will never agree to school integration — even in liberal Connecticut — unless they are paid off with more of what they already have.
It must be noted here that Hartford Public Schools — the party whose students would be most directly affected by Sheff — was kept out of the Sheff negotiations until 2014, when it was becoming obvious that the reforms were falling apart. Theirs was not to reason why. Theirs was just to play ball or lose funding. Yet the state, the plaintiffs’ attorneys and Sheff supporters have often delighted in blaming the district for not recruiting enough whites, never wanting to even entertain the thought that their cozy little deal was defective to begin with.
Moreover, as the state has steadily increased funding for the Sheff magnets, it has frozen funding for Hartford Public Schools year after year for now eight years and counting. Flat funding has forced the district to shift more and more of its financial resources away from the classroom to pay for non-instructional items that increase yearly, such as support staff, maintenance, insurance and utilities. Flat funding, therefore, ensures that Hartford students who are denied access to the magnets fall further and further behind academically.
Hartford Public Schools, to its credit, fought Sheff by redesigning many of its schools into small boutique academies, tailored to spark student interest in pursuing specific careers. They included High School, Inc., the Law and Government Academy, the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology, the Nursing Academy, the Culinary Arts Academy, and the Journalism and Media Academy. Also in that mix was the Renzulli Academy for the Gifted and Talented, a school that shattered all the negative stereotypes about the intellectual abilities of Hartford children that Sheff loves to exploit. Flat funding has unfortunately limited their effectiveness.
So here we are, nearly 30 years since the Sheff suit was filed and 20 years since the court ruling, and as the state and the plaintiffs boast that they have placed nearly half of all Hartford students in “reduced-isolation settings”, a Courant investigative series reveals they actually rig the lottery to make it look that way. The correct figure, the Courant says, is perhaps half of what the state and the plaintiffs claim.
And how do they rig it? Voodoo magic.
For starters, they made Asian students white. Honest. In 2013, the state and the plaintiffs waved a magic wand over the head of every Asian student in Greater Hartford and said, “PHOOM! You’re white!” Then they cued up a chorus of angels to sing “Aaaaaahhhh!” and the total number of white students miraculously expanded to help many magnet schools meet their white quota.
For their next trick, the state and the plaintiffs waved a magic wand over Hartford schools with Latino and black populations as high as 99 percent and said, “PHOOM! You’re integrated!” In some cases, all that these schools have to do is incorporate a special program or extracurricular activity that allows their students to, on occasion, brush up against whites in other districts. You wouldn’t know it to go there, but the Sarah J. Rawson Elementary School in the city’s Blue Hills area is integrated because it adopted something called the Lighthouse school program. In other cases, schools that fall short of their white quota are deemed integrated anyway for merely stating that they will strive to eventually reach it. Someday. Maybe. Even suburban magnets are having trouble meeting their white quota.
A third trick is the continuing expansion of the boundaries from which to draw white students, as suburban white families flee further and further away from Greater Hartford to — guess what? — escape the new influx of Latino and black suburbanites. A not-so-funny joke among Hartford administrators has it that city students will soon be commuting to Sheff magnets in Canada.
But the nastiest trick of all is the systematic way in which Sheff magnets largely exclude English-Language Learners and Special Education students from entering their doors and inconveniently lowering their test scores. Even when ELLs and Special Education students manage to win the lottery, magnet administrators quickly advise them that sadly their school does not provide the programs they require. Then they “counsel” the students toward an underfunded Hartford neighborhood school that supposedly does. Hartford’s neighborhood schools have, as a result, become virtual dumping grounds for ELL and Special Education students, sometimes comprising almost their entire student population.
All of which brings us back to how The Hartford Courant suddenly found Jesus and exposed the horrors of Sheff, after years of serving as the unofficial house organ for the Sheff Movement. Intentionally or not, the series comes at a time when Gov. Dannel Malloy is targeting education spending to balance his budget. His budget proposal already contains about $1 billion in education cuts, including a $350 million cut in regular funding, a $550 million cut in education-related grants. He has also proposed shifting a third of the state’s teacher pension costs to municipalities. He has not touched the estimated $250 million a year that is costs the state to operate Sheff. Should he decide to do so, the Courant series has given him the perfect rationale. He can say, “Hey, the Courant says Sheff was a roaring success for a while, but we’ve run out of white people for it, so let’s take all that money and use it for something else.” Or he can say, “The Courant has persuaded me that Sheff is a dismal failure, so let’s take all that money and use it for something else.”
On the other hand, Gov. Malloy and the state Department of Education could use the Courant series as grounds to eliminate the obvious racism in Sheff and better educate more Hartford students than Sheff has up to now.
He could, for example, propose the expansion of school district boundaries so that each district embraces multiple towns and cities with school children of multiple races and income levels. Interestingly enough, creating larger districts is more consistent with the original Supreme Court ruling in the Sheff case.
Gov. Malloy could also order an overhaul of the state’s insane education funding formula (ECS) so that the bulk of all school funding is “substantially and verifiably” directed at the neediest students, as recently ordered by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher in another landmark court case. Overhauling the formula as Judge Moukawsher has directed would essentially reverse the fallacious fundamental philosophy that buttresses Sheff.
If truth be told, no Latino or black parent participates in the Sheff lottery to have their children join hands with white kids. They hold their noses and put themselves through that most humiliating of experiences, so that the children they love can have the best possible chance for success.
One thing is certain. Change is definitely in the air. Let’s hope Connecticut gets it right this time.