“There is no scientific evidence that if you sit a black child in a classroom next to a white child, it’s going to make the black child smarter.” Those prophetic and fateful words were spoken in 2007 by Dr. Steven Adamowski, following his appointment as Hartford Schools Superintendent, when asked his opinion of the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation plan, imposed on the city by the state of Connecticut. Then he went on to prove exactly that by refashioning traditional public schools that, in some cases, were academically as good or better than the magnet schools covered by the plan, even as the state mercilessly slashed his district’s budget for those traditional schools.
Yet, the mythical belief that sitting with white children makes black children smarter remains the foundation upon which the plan was constructed. Now Latino and African American parents are charging in federal court that the plan’s devotion to this philosophy is unconstitutional and racist.
The Connecticut General Assembly approved the desegregation plan in 1996. It was the state’s response to the landmark 1989 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in the Sheff v. O’Neill case, which found that the state’s system of districting schools along municipal lines isolated Hartford students by race and ethnicity. The court made no mention of using patently discriminatory racial quotas to correct the problem. But that’s the best deal that the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O’Neill said could get from a legislature dominated by white suburban lawmakers that had dragged their feet for seven years. So the plaintiffs hailed the plan as a victory and have been trying to make it intestinally palatable to Hartford parents ever since.
Here’s how the Sheff plan works on paper: The state agrees to build and fund dozens of shiny new state-of-the-art magnet schools on one condition: No less than 25 percent of the students in a Sheff magnet school have to be white in order for the school to be considered integrated. Failure to meet that standard could result in funding cuts, even closure of a magnet school. Students enrolled in these world-class institutions are chosen by lottery and, as the state builds more of them, more students are accommodated. On the surface, the plan sounds so noble, so egalitarian — three low-income Latinos and African Americans for every suburban white kid. Who could possibly oppose it?
Here’s how Sheff really works: What the plaintiffs didn’t mention at the time was that the inverse of the three-for-one equation is also true. For every white student that doesn’t attend a Sheff magnet school, three Latinos or African Americans are denied access to the school as well. High School, Inc., the city’s highly successful academy of insurance and finance that was developed as a traditional public school under Dr. Adamowski, had a freshman class of 100 mostly non-white Hartford students in 2013. Then, thanks to a timely alignment of mutual self-interest, the state, the district, and the Sheff plaintiffs agreed to convert High School, Inc., to a magnet school. The state was under pressure to produce more magnet schools to satisfy the Sheff plaintiffs, and the district saw an opportunity to secure the extra funding that the state was denying High School, Inc., for being a regular public school. Only 11 white students chose to enroll as freshmen the following year, which meant the size of High School, Inc.’s, freshman class had to be limited to 44 students in order for it to be in compliance with Sheff. Sixty-six of the available seats, 50 of which would have gone to worthy Latino and African American Hartford students, went unfilled. To explain Sheff another way, white parents get their 25 percent cut of all the available magnet seats right off the top. If they choose to fill less than 25 percent of the available seats, then the Latino and African American share, where the educational need is greatest, is reduced proportionately.
Variations of the same scenario have repeated themselves numerous times since 1996. And, as the number of suburban whites willing to send their children to magnet schools has dwindled, the number of Latinos and African Americans who are denied magnet seats has multiplied exponentially. Hartford parents grew increasingly resentful over the past 23 years of walking past those shiny, new, half-empty magnet schools in their own neighborhoods, while their kids attended the rundown, overcrowded, underfunded traditional public schools. Some of those parents were themselves barred from attending magnet schools as children.
When the multitude of Sheff refugees became too embarrassingly large to ignore, The Hartford Courant, one of many publications that hailed the Sheff integration plan as a model for the country, dispatched two reporters to verify what was already obvious to everyone else in the city: that Sheff’s rigid whites-only quota was shutting a vast majority of Hartford students from magnet schools. Their articles came to the attention of Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm based in Sacramento, California, known for challenging affirmative action programs across the country. The Foundation’s motto is “Defending Liberty and Justice for All”. Think of Pacific Legal as the Republican version of the American Civil Liberties Union. When lawyers at Pacific Legal read the Courant reports, they decided that bringing down the national model for school integration would be a worthy endeavor.
Pacific Legal’s initial lawsuit, Robinson v. Wentzel, was filed a year ago on behalf of LaShawn Robinson and seven other rejected Hartford families. Ms. Robinson, who was a Hartford Public School student when the Sheff decision was issued, has five children. Her eldest son, Jerod, was denied admission to a magnet school three times.
“It wasn’t hard to find people who were impacted,” said Pacific Legal Attorney Oliver J. Dunford. “The Courant stories provided a bunch of names. But it was harder to get people to sign up.”
Pacific Legal Foundation filed the second federal lawsuit on Feb. 20, 2019, on behalf of the 125-member Connecticut Parents Union, led by Gwen Samuel, a former Head Start mother. The suit argues that Sheff’s race-based enrollment preferences “unfairly and illegally” deny African American and Latino children access to magnet schools.
“They’re spending billions of dollars to enforce discrimination, while they cut costs to the regular public schools,” Samuel said. “Using skin color to block life-changing opportunities for these children, isn’t just unfair, it’s unconstitutional.”
Less than half of the 6,000 Hartford students who annually apply for the magnet school lottery (2,300) are accepted. The remaining 3,700 rejects continue to be stuck stay in rundown, underfunded, underperforming neighborhood schools. On an annual basis, about 65 percent of Hartford’s 22,000 Latino and African American students, roughly 14,300 school children, lose out on a magnet school education.
“It’s as if we’re going out of our way to deprive kids from Hartford of a good education,” former Gov. Dannel Malloy told The Courant. “The solution is no longer working for the Hartford kids it’s supposed to benefit.”
The Sheff Movement, as the hardcore supporters of the plan call themselves, remain steadfast in their insistence on retaining the white racial quotas, even as they acknowledge that the plan has unintended flaws. First, they argue that the state should build more magnet schools to address the racial discrepancies, without disturbing the underlying Sheff principle that whites are, by definition, smarter than everyone else. Their attorneys at the Center For Children’s Advocacy at the University of Connecticut, the American Civil Liberties and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund maintain that white racial quotas are necessary and perfectly legal when implemented to comply with a Supreme Court order. They can’t seem to grasp that it’s the quotas, and not the need for more magnets, that are robbing Hartford students of a quality education.
“Their theory doesn’t hold up, once you get past a certain threshold,” said Paul Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford!, an education advocacy group, funded by private business.
The Sheff Movement’s second response to the lawsuits has been to characterize Pacific Legal Foundation on their website, as the big bad right wing bogeyman that’s wants to “hurt people of color and attack progressive policies,” such as, “school integration, affirmative action, bilingual education, universal health care, environmental protection, and renters’ rights.” The Movement went so far as to say that if Pacific Legal Foundation wins the Robinson v. Wentzel case it “will return us back to a separate and unequal school system” that existed before Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. LaShawn Robinson and Gwen Samuel would argue that thanks to Sheff, a separate and unequal school system already exists in Connecticut.
It should not be overlooked that preservation of the 25 percent white quota has been the basis for creating a massive $3 billion-dollar educational industrial complex of 44 state-funded magnet schools spread over 22 school districts, that employs hundreds of administrators, teachers, support staff and security personnel. The complex, whose operation is split between the Capitol Region Education Council and Hartford Public Schools, has so far cost taxpayers $261 million a year to operate, and $1.4 billion to build. Should LaShawn Robinson and The Connecticut Parents Union win their lawsuits, that whole gravy train falls off a cliff.
The State of Connecticut, which is looking for ways to reduce the cost of education, has accepted the notion that the Sheff plan is doing more harm than good at this stage. Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban, who represents the state in the ongoing negotiations with the Sheff plaintiffs, called it “the unintended consequences of well-intended acts.” Notwithstanding his comment, the General Assembly last year passed a law expanding the 25 percent white quota statewide to include the magnet schools in all the state’s other urban centers, such as New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and so on., a bold move that led Pacific Legal to file the second lawsuit.
Pacific Legal Foundation, for the record, isn’t shy about its commitment to the conservative Republican principles of individual rights and limiting the power of government. It has assets of $60 million and with very very few exceptions, its staff is overwhelmingly white. It was founded in 1973 by members of then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s staff and, yes, it has challenged government affirmative action policies in courts across the country as discriminatory and has won on occasion.
On this issue, they happen to be dead on. The Sheff plan is as racially isolating today as the system it replaced 23 years ago. It’s now the embodiment of everything it was meant to cure. What’s most appalling about the Sheff advocates is that they perceive themselves as enlightened progressives, those winged, blameless do-gooders, who continually say they want racial equality, but only help to make the alternative more insidious.
Fortunately, LaShawn Robinson, Gwen Samuel and the multitudes of black and brown families they represent just want a guaranteed quality education for their kids. To them, the Sheff plan has nothing to do with integration, or gun control or legalizing marijuana, or renewable energy, or global warming, or even saving NPR Radio. From where they sit, Sheff is all about a bunch of haves, using a fallacious integration plan to hog up a lion’s share of state education monies at the expense of the have-nots. The Sheff worshipers are at this point so associated with preserving white privilege, they should drop the “progressive” label altogether and call themselves Republicans.