For nearly half a century, school desegregation advocates have pushed for a metropolitan Hartford solution to lift urban minority students up to the same quality of education as white suburban students. Advocates lobbied for voluntary interdistrict busing in the 1960s, then pressed for stronger desegregation mandates across the entire metropolitan region in the 1989 Sheff v O’Neill lawsuit. Victory finally arrived for the Sheff plaintiffs in the Connecticut supreme court’s 1996 decision, by a 4-3 vote, that racial and socioeconomic isolation deprived Hartford schoolchildren of their state constitutional right to an equal education opportunity. Yet the court did not specify any remedy or timetable to address this injustice, handing the responsibility over to the executive and legislative branches, where neither the Republican Governor nor the Democrat-led General Assembly desired to alter the boundary lines that divided city and suburban districts. Although Sheff allies proposed a metropolitan school district to unite students across the Hartford region, this bold plan never gained sufficient political traction among local education officials in the suburbs, nor the city, as Trinity researcher Jennifer Williams documented in her interviews with key actors. At present, the limited school desegregation remedies that exist in the Hartford region are based primarily on voluntary measures, under the popular slogan of “choice,” that effectively protect the interests of privileged suburban families while delivering only partial justice to the intended urban beneficiaries. 1
In 1966, when representatives of the Project Concern interdistrict busing program attempted to persuade suburban districts to enroll small numbers of Hartford minority students in their districts, they encountered intense resistance from white residents determined to defend their boundary lines. Trinity researcher Grace Beckett discovered that even in West Hartford, one of the few districts that eventually agreed to start up Project Concern, the controversy generated the largest crowd (estimated at 1,200) at a board of education meeting, including many residents who booed religious leaders speaking in support of the plan. After the initial controversy faded, more suburban districts agreed to participate in Project Concern and accept the state subsidy that came with it. In its peak year in 1979, the program enabled approximately 1,175 Hartford students to enroll in suburban districts. Based on 24 interviews that students conducted with Project Concern alumni, Trinity researcher Dana Banks and I found a mix of support and ambivalence about the program. More than half suggested that daily bus rides of an hour (or more) represented a “forced choice,” with less autonomy than the suburbs that voluntarily decided to accept them. 2
A second wave of voluntary metropolitan desegregation arose with interdistrict magnet schools, designed to attract families from city and suburban towns with specialized curricula. While three magnets emerged in Hartford during the 1980s, the largest expansion occurred in the aftermath of the Sheff ruling, when the state legislature agreed to fund most construction costs for selected proposals. Magnet schools became a politically popular response to segregation because they allowed individual suburban districts and families to “choose” whether or not to participate in a policy solution. 3
Magnet schools also served multiple interests, and not exclusively those of Hartford students. In the early 1990s, Trinity College faced increasing urban poverty and declining admissions statistics, and its Board of Trustees “even began to explore the feasibility of moving the College out of the city,” according to former vice president Kevin Sullivan. Incoming Trinity President Evan Dobelle leveraged private endowment funds to gain state support for the Learning Corridor, a $110 million magnet school complex built on an abandoned field adjacent to the campus in 2000. But Trinity researcher Nivia Nieves and I found that Sheff magnet school funding diverted earlier plans for a Hartford neighborhood school, and reduced the number of seats available to city youth from the Latino community around campus. Although interdistrict magnets were more racially diverse than most city or suburban schools, the relatively low percentage of Hartford students able to attend them led Trinity researcher Sarah Kaminski to question their effectiveness in addressing overall segregation levels. 4
Years after the Sheff ruling, plaintiffs and state officials finally agreed to a legal settlement in 2003, with a four-year goal of placing 30 percent of Hartford minority students in “reduced isolation” settings, generally defined as schools with under 75 percent minority students. Together with Trinity researchers Jesse Wanzer and Christina Ramsay, our Missing the Goal report illustrated the limited success of voluntary remedies in meeting that objective, followed by a more detailed analysis of overlapping policy obstacles. We also detected spatial inequalities in how desegregation was implemented. For instance, suburban districts enrolling the highest proportion of Hartford minority students through the Open Choice transfer program (previously known as Project Concern) were more likely to be located farther away from the city, requiring longer bus rides. Also, suburban districts with the highest magnet school participation rates were more likely to have fewer White students (such as Bloomfield), making racial balance more difficult than desegregation planners had anticipated. In 2008, plaintiffs and state officials agreed to a second Sheff settlement, featuring a more comprehensive management plan and a more ambitious desegregation goal to be reached by 2013. 5
Public school choice became more prevalent in the Hartford area in 2008, as the new Regional School Choice Office recruited suburban applicants for interdistrict desegregation, and the Hartford Public Schools launched its own district-wide choice initiative to increase school accountability. For many Hartford parents, the opportunity to go “shopping for schools” as suburban parents had done felt empowering, yet the confusion caused by competing choice programs (with similar names but separate application processes) was overwhelming. To address this concern, Trinity students and community partners and I collaborated with Academic Computing staff Jean-Pierre Haeberly and David Tatem, and Social Science Center Coordinator Rachael Barlow. In January 2009, we launched SmartChoices, a parent-friendly digital guide that lists all eligible public school options across the metropolitan region, with an interactive map and tools to sort schools by distance, racial balance, and student achievement. With funding from a local education foundation, Trinity students conducted parent outreach workshops with hands-on guidance on using the tool, while interviewing parents in English or Spanish about their decision-making process. Based on our sample of 93 workshop participants, we found that providing richer information makes a difference: two-thirds either changed or clarified their top-ranked school after the hands-on workshop, and many found options with higher test scores or greater racial balance located closer to their neighborhood. But we also observed some Black and Latino parents using the tool to avoid schools with high concentrations of students from racial groups other than their own. 6
To better understand this secondary “shopping for schools” market, the next phase of our research is to analyze which Hartford families do (and do not) participate in public school choice programs, and the types of schools they desire. Working with Professor Diane Zannoni and another team of econometrics students, we are comparing choice applicant data to thousands of records from the broader school population, to search for characteristics that may be associated with individual students, their classmates, and their neighborhoods. Our spatial analysis builds upon prior work by Trinity researchers who used geographic information system (GIS) tools to analyze magnet school application data, or conducted door-to-door interviews with parents in selected Hartford neighborhoods with very high or low application rates. Displaying our results through data maps also enables us to study how different stakeholders interpret their meaning. 7
More research remains to be done in several related areas that Trinity students and faculty have begun to study. Our understanding of magnet schools would improve with further examination of student-to-student relationships and attitudes toward other races. We also would benefit from more cultural comparisons between suburban school districts, and analysis of achievement gaps within suburban districts. The role played by Catholic and private schools in educational markets deserves closer study, as does the legislative history of funding school districts and interdistrict programs. Of course, fruitful ideas for researching schooling and housing in metropolitan Hartford can be found in publications by scholars at other institutions, and in works on other regions. 8
While our society preaches the ideal of equal educational opportunity, our CSS Project research has challenged my students to recognize the powerful role that real estate values play in determining access to this public good, and raising (or lowering) its market value. Although we call them “public” schools, we buy and sell access to most as “private” commodities, based on the underlying real estate and governmental boundary lines that restrict entry. Access to more desirable elementary and secondary schooling became more valuable in the post-World War II labor market, with rising economic returns for students attaining higher education degrees, which fueled the practice of “shopping for schools” in suburbs today. As civil rights activists have battled against barriers to equal access over the years, state lawmakers have gradually begun to decouple housing and schooling by offering interdistrict transfers and magnet schools, which do not require families to rent or buy a home in a suburban district. In essence, Connecticut’s voluntary desegregation policy has created a second “shopping” marketplace, called public school choice, in our attempt to remedy the ills of the existing market based on private housing.
Yet desirable public school options remain scarce. Moreover, this second government-run choice market relies on individual families (with varying levels of literacy) to sort through glossy brochures and competing advertising campaigns to identify the “best” schools for their children, without fully considering the aggregated effects of these decisions on who gets ahead, and who is left behind.
By itself, research will not eliminate the disparities that divide us. But it is an essential step in the process. Uncovering the underlying causes of inequalities, and understanding the success and limitations of past reform efforts, helps us come to terms with the depth and scope of the real issues facing us. Learning about the evolution of cities, suburbs, and schools — particularly in the company of reflective community partners, with perspectives broader than our own — can teach us important lessons about privilege and power, and strengthen our collective capacity. Reconstructing a roadmap of how we arrived at our present-day policy dilemmas does not provide us with a detailed reform agenda. But the process can suggest possible avenues and future directions for moving all of us a few steps forward.
- Jennifer Williams, “The Unthinkable Remedy: The Proposed Metropolitan Hartford School District” (Cities, Suburbs, and School Project presentation, Trinity College, 2006). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/19/). ↩
- Grace Beckett, “Suburban Participation in Hartford’s Project Concern School Desegregation Program, 1966-1998” (Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College, December 2004) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut,(http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/11/); Dana Banks and Jack Dougherty, “City-Suburban Desegregation and Forced Choices: Review Essay of Susan Eaton’s the Other Boston Busing Story,” Teachers College Record 106, (May 2004): 985-996, available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut,(http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/facpub/21/). See also Laurie Gutmann, “Whose Concern Matters? Student Support and Project Concern” (Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College, May 2003) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/17/). ↩
- See early magnet school history in Thomas C. Reynolds, “Magnet Schools and the Connecticut Experience” (Public Policy master’s thesis, Trinity College, 1994). ↩
- Kevin B. Sullivan and James A. Trostle, “Trinity College and the Learning Corridor: A Small, Urban Liberal Arts College Launches a Public Magnet School Campus,” Metropolitan Universities 15, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 15-34; Peter J. Knapp, in collaboration with Anne H. Knapp, Trinity College in the Twentieth Century: A History (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2000); Nivia Nieves and Jack Dougherty, “Latino Politicians, Activists, and Parents: The Challenge of Implementing City-Suburban Magnet Schools” (Conference paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, April 2006) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/30/); Sarah Kaminski, “Magnet Schools: An Effective Solution to Sheff V O’Neill?,” Trinity Papers 21, (2002): 63-71, available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/9/). ↩
- Jack Dougherty, Jesse Wanzer, and Christina Ramsay, Missing the Goal: A Visual Guide to Sheff Vs. O’Neill School Desegregation (Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Research Project at Trinity College, revised October 2007) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut,(http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/6/); Jack Dougherty, Jesse Wanzer, and Christina Ramsay, “Sheff vs O’Neill: Weak Desegregation Remedies and Strong Disincentives in Connecticut, 1996-2008,” in From the Courtroom to the Classroom: The Shifting Landscape of School Desegregation, ed. Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2009). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/3/). ↩
- Devlin Hughes, Designing Effective Google Maps for Social Change: A Case Study of SmartChoices (September 2009) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut,(http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/8/); Jack Dougherty, Diane Zannoni, Maham Chowhan, Courteney Coyne, Benjamin Dawson, Tehani Guruge, Begaeta Nukic, “School Information, Parental Decisions, and the Digital Divide: The SmartChoices Project in Hartford, Connecticut” in Making School Choice Work for All, ed. Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, forthcoming). ↩
- Naralys Estevez and Jack Dougherty, “Do Magnet Schools Attract All Families Equally? A GIS Mapping Analysis of Latinos” (Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, 2006) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/16/); Jesse Wanzer, Heather Moore, and Jack Dougherty, “Race and Magnet School Choice: A Mixed-Methods Neighborhood Study in Urban Connecticut” (Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, 2008) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut,(http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/22/); Brittany Price, “The Usage of Maps in Facilitating Conversations With Stakeholders About Educational Desegregation in Hartford” (Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College, December 2009). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut,(http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/26/). ↩
- On student relations and attitudes, see Molly Schofield, “Increasing Interracial Relationships” (Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College, December 2002) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/24/); Nicola Blacklaw, “The Presence of Contact Conditions in a Magnet School” (Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College, Fall 2002) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/12/); David Reuman, “Effects of an Inter-District Manget Program on Inter-Racial Attitudes At School” (Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, April 2003), available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/32/). On suburban districts see Antonio DePina, “Comparing Suburban School Culture in Metropolitan Hartford: How Does the Formal and Hidden Curriculum Vary Across Two High Schools?” (Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College, Fall 2003) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/15/); Rebecca Wetzler, “The Effects of Health, Mobility, and Socio-Economic Status Factors on Race Gap in Achievement,” (Psychology Senior Thesis, Trinity College, May 2006), available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/20/). On private schools see Carmen Green, “Catholic Schools, Racial Change, and Suburbanization, 1930-2000” (Paper presented at the History of Education Society, November 2004) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/13/); Heather Moore, “Private School Choice and Educational Outcomes in Metropolitan Hartford” (Cities, Suburbs, and Schools presentation, Trinity College, July 2005). On funding see Lis Pennington, Emily Steele, and Jack Dougherty, “A Political History of School Finance Reform in Metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut, 1945-2005” (Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, April 2007) Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/29/); David MacDonald, “The Funding of Interdistrict Magnet Schools in Connecticut: A Failed Approach to Addressing the Sheff vs. O’Neill Connecticut Supreme Court Ruling?” (Public Policy Studies graduate course paper, Trinity College, May 2005), Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut, (http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/cssp_papers/34/). ↩