More than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, most public schools in America’s major cities remain starkly divided by race and class. But, the magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut, are exceptions. While no place is perfect, the Hartford region has achieved racial integration that is largely unknown in other urban school districts. This success is because of the brave families who filed the Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit. Their efforts led Connecticut to take significant action to pursue integrated schools.
When Sheff was filed in 1989, all Hartford students attended a school district with over 91 percent African-American or Latino enrollment and nearly half of students lived below the poverty line. Meanwhile, surrounding suburbs were upper-middle class and nearly all white. This extreme racial and economic segregation was no accident. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, federal, state and local authorities callously stymied school desegregation efforts, while encouraging white flight to the suburbs and adopting housing policies that locked low-income people of color in Hartford.
In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court held in Sheff that the disparities in the school systems were racially discriminatory and violated the state constitution. As part of the ruling, the state started taking measures to remove the barriers that blocked African-American and Latino students in Hartford from access to quality, diverse educational opportunities.
Today, as a direct result of Sheff, over 22,000 students in total, and nearly half of Hartford’s students of color, attend integrated schools. After years of negotiation and advocacy, the state has established over 40 magnet schools and an expansive inter-district student transfer system. Interested students voluntarily apply for these magnet schools and transfers. The academic research shows that these efforts to create diverse schools are benefiting students, including improving academic achievement and long-term social and economic outcomes.
But in this unfortunate era of increased racial tensions, the progress that the Hartford region has achieved is under attack. In February, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed Robinson v. Wentzell, a lawsuit that claims the tools Connecticut is using to measure integration promotes “segregation.” This simply is not true.
A lottery controls who is admitted to Hartford’s magnet schools. The lottery does not use quotas or any individual student’s race to determine admissions. Instead, to counteract the effects of persistent housing discrimination, the lottery considers, among other factors, where a student lives.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that government authorities “may choose to foster diversity and combat racial isolation with race-neutral tools.” And, in 2016, the court once again acknowledged that diversity in schools “promotes cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes, and enables students to better understand persons of different races.”
Amid the deep racial divisions pulling Americans further apart, now is not the time for federal courts to allow the Pacific Legal Foundation or any organization to undermine legitimate state efforts to bring students of different socioeconomic backgrounds closer together.
The parents who filed Sheff correctly saw diversity as a solution to racial intolerance and the key to improving education for children of all races. In stark contrast, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s lawsuit, if successful, will increase segregation — ending all voluntary, race-neutral attempts to identify and eliminate racially isolated schools.
The Pacific Legal Foundation believes that segregated schools are just as good as integrated ones. But they are wrong. As the Supreme Court said in Brown, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This remains as true today as it was in 1954. Now is not the time to allow our schools to become further segregated. Instead, we must push for integrated schools for every child.
Rachel Martin is interim executive director of Sheff Movement, a coalition working to assure full access to quality integrated education for every child in the Hartford, Connecticut, region.
Cara McClellan is a Skadden Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and represents the plaintiffs in Sheff. Prior to law, she taught middle school with Teach for America in Philadelphia.