Vianna Iorio, JiYun Lee, and Jack Dougherty
In 1985, Saundra Foster, a black single mother living in the City of Hartford, searched for a better school for her teenage son, Trevor. Trevor had always been “a good kid” who liked to go to school, but ran into problems in the Hartford school district, which Saundra described as “geared for special education.” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). She explained that it was “almost impossible” to get Trevor into more rigorous classes, and he was viewed as “subordinate” for trying to address the matter with his teacher. Trevor was then “sent to an alternative education center,” which was the breaking point for Saundra and Trevor Foster’s experience with Hartford school district. It was clear to Saundra that the “alternative education center was not where [Trevor] belonged.” Faced with no real alternative, He soon considered dropping out of high school altogether.
Saundra knew she had to take immediate action on behalf of her son, she emphasized that “for a child like that to say that he is contemplating dropping out of school, it’s time to start thinking about alternatives” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). Saundra decided to “jump the line” by enrolling her child, a resident of the city of Hartford, in the suburban school district of Bloomfield. “Jumping the line” was a serious step; although other parents had done it before, the decision could result in real trouble if they were caught. She sent Trevor to Bloomfield to live with his cousin, a legal resident of Bloomfield. By November 1984, Trevor transitioned well into Bloomfield High and even became a starting player in the boy’s varsity basketball team (Drury 1985a). There was no record of him getting in conflict with peers or teachers and Ms. Foster believed “he was much better off in Bloomfield” (Drury 1985c). Although Saundra Foster had to live apart from her son, the decision to jump the line proved to be beneficial for Trevor’s education. Ms. Foster compared the unjust system of where a child must attend school to a deck of cards, and stated “I just have to play them” because Trevor “should be able to go where he can to get the best education” (Bass 1985).
Saundra Foster, mother of Trevor Foster, was accused of stealing a public education from a district where she did not reside. Source: still frame from video, William Mendoza and Anita Ford Saunders, “Jumping the Line,” The Public File (Hartford, CT: WVIT Channel 30, August 31, 1985).
Some people referred to students like Trevor Foster, who live in one town but attend a school in another, “line jumpers.” Most cases of line jumping during the 1980s were in suburban districts and involved “students from Hartford… not from lily-white suburbs like Avon or Simsbury” (Hartford Courant 1976). Parents like Saundra who decided to jump the line asked themselves, “Is Hartford providing its youth with a good education?” (Mendoza and Saunders 1985). Reverend Jesse Jackson, an American civil rights activist and former presidential candidate, stated that Saundra Foster and the three other parents “have exposed a two-tier educational system” (Mendoza & Saunders 1985).
The town of Bloomfield responded to Saundra Foster and three other Black parents by arresting them with a first-degree felony for what many described as “stealing an education.” Bloomfield’s arrests were unprecedented in Connecticut, and were meant to garner public attention as a scare tactic meant to discourage others, particularly black mothers living in Hartford, from “jumping the line.” While the arrests did draw the public eye and may have intimidated some parents, they also sparked a civil rights discussion on the growing disparity between city and suburban schools. Saundra Foster’s advocates and civil rights leaders capitalized on her arrest to raise pivotal questions on one’s right to an education. Is it possible to steal a public education that the state is required to provide to all students? Did the growing inequality between Hartford and its suburbs prove that Connecticut was not meeting its constitutional obligations for equal educational opportunity? These questions were not just important in the abstract. Foster’s and the other parents’ arrests forced a close examination of education inequity in Connecticut, which helped lay the groundwork for the landmark Sheff v O’Neill case in 1989. Foster’s arrest brought to light the existence of deep city-suburban boundary lines, which were becoming increasingly contested in the 1980s due to a combination of the rising disparities between urban and suburban schools, increasing costs of public education, and rising white suburban barriers against non-resident students, especially Black students, in contrast to relaxed policies towards white students a generation earlier. The Sheff case would build of the work of Foster’s advocates to legally challenge these boundaries.
History of Line Jumping
In 1985 in Hartford, one third of the population lived below the poverty level and half of the households were headed by single parents (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). It is clear that by 1985 many families crossed city-suburban lines in effort to overcome the challenges of concentrated poverty. In addition to Trevor Foster and the children of the other three parents who were arrested, nearly 100 students from other towns such as Hartford and New Britain attended Bloomfield High School around March 1985 (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). West Hartford also received numerous requests from non-residents, mostly from Hartford or New Britain, who wanted to send their children into their suburban district. Mr. Calvert, Associate Superintendent of West Hartford schools, explained that “I get at least two a week…I have had parents come to me and cry.” (McCarthy 1985).
However, school enrollment from out of town residents did not always follow this “escape from Hartford” narrative. At the turn of the century, “Hartford Public High School became so attractive to families that it acted as a magnet, drawing significant numbers of students from outlying towns into the city boundaries to receive their education.” In fact, in 1882, 20% of Hartford High School’s class came from outside city lines, and most paid tuition of about $3 per week. By 1920, non-Hartford enrollment began to decrease as rising enrollment limited non-resident students the city could accept, and as other towns built high schools of their own (On the Line, A Golden Age for City Schools). However, even into the 1950’s non-residents were still jumping the line to access Hartford schools, and residency policies to control borders were not high priority.
But beginning in the late 1960s, there was a racially motivated shift from city to suburban line jumping. By 1960, it was evident that students from Hartford were jumping the line to Bloomfield. In a 1985 letter to the editor responding to Foster’s and the other parent’s arrests, Wayne Porter, Bloomfield High School principal from 1962 to 1968, attests “to the fact that the problem of non-resident students from many years.” However Porter explains that “the school administration elected to look the other way” because of “racial unrest,” although Porter later insists that the issue of non-resident students is economic rather than racial (Porter 1985). The students fleeing “racial unrest” that Porter was referring to were largely white students, looking to escape racial protests in Hartford. In 1970, Bloomfield’s racial compositions was 86% white and 14% black. However, throughout the decade Bloomfield’s percentage of Black residents steadily increased, as Bloomfield was viewed as an acceptable town for Blacks to move into, as redlining practices kept them out of other suburbs (Ragland 2013). Therefore, during the 70’s and 80’, Bloomfield schools reflected the town’s population and were fairly integrated, although in the future Bloomfield would face issues of white students leaving Bloomfield public schools and causing those schools to be disproportionately segregated compared to the neighborhoods they are located in (Ragland).
Impact of Arrests
As mentioned by Principal Porter, prior to the 1985 arrests of Saundra Foster and three other mothers, Bloomfield school board simply disenrolled any non-resident student found attending Bloomfield schools, without any involvement from the police departments. In 1985, it was reported that about 20 students were expelled from Bloomfield each year for being non-residents (Johnson). Dave Drury reported in the Hartford Courant, “Attorneys with the state Department of Education said they had never heard of a town seeking criminal sanctions in a school residence case” (Drury). By deciding to arrest these Hartford and Windsor parents instead of simply having the Bloomfield School Board go through the traditional disenrollment process, the Bloomfield police sent a powerful message to parents of Hartford and other high-poverty cities: to attempt to provide a better education for your child by sending them to a different district than the one they live in is a dangerous move. The Bloomfield Police department turned a situation that could have been handled quietly and within precedent of Connecticut school districts, into a highly public scare tactic directed very clearly at poor parents.
The Hartford parents were charged with first degree larceny. First degree larceny is a class B felony offense in Connecticut that could mean up to 20 years in prison and a fine of as much as $10,000 (Drury). Connecticut Penal law defines larceny as “intent to deprive another of property or to…wrongfully take, obtain, or withhold such property from an owner” (CT Penal Law). The questions then arise: who is the owner of a free public education? How is it possible to steal something guaranteed by law to be provided to you for no cost?
According to the Bloomfield police, each parent stole $4,001 of education services from Bloomfield education funds, which comes mostly from taxpayers, for their child. $4,001 is the per pupil spending reported by Bloomfield school district in 1985, the eighth highest in the state for that year (Drury). The mothers were initially going to be charged with third degree larceny, a lesser crime; however, the police decided they would issue warrants for arrest on first degree larceny. Even though the value of money they deemed stolen didn’t alone qualify for this charge, Bloomfield police claimed the crime included an element of extortion which therefore pushed the charged up to the first degree. Had these students attended the Hartford schools they were assigned to by their residency, they would have received 8% less per pupil spending than a child in Bloomfield (CPEC).
The arrests also sparked a discussion on what needed to be improved upon in Hartford schools to prevent more parents from feeling the need to illegally send their children to a different school district. When Saundra Foster went to the police station after she learned of the warrant for her arrest, State Senator Frank D. Barrows, whose district included Hartford, went with her in support. Barrows stated to reporters that “the education system is deplorable in the city of Hartford”, justifying Foster’s choice to send her child to Bloomfield (Drury). However, Amando Cruz, the Hartford Public High School principal at the time, defended Hartford Public Schools, and stated “To say that within an urban setting, in an urban school you can not achieve, that’s erroneous.” He went on to emphasize the support provided in Hartford schools, especially for students that may not receive all the support they require at home, and he went as far as to argue that children in Hartford could become even more successful than children being educated in the suburbs. Cruz stated, “You can see by our achievement scores we have progressed,” although it was unclear what scores specifically he was referring to and how those score compared to Bloomfield. He invited politicians like Barrows to come visit Hartford schools themselves and see what they were like before commenting on their quality (Mendoza and Saunders).
But patterns of clear problems in Hartford public schools were brought to light as a result of the publicity after the Bloomfield arrests. Saundra Foster expressed concerns of the socio-economic differences between Bloomfield and Hartford, and needs of children coming from such concentrated poverty overwhelming Hartford school district (The Hour 1985). Dr. James Comer, a Yale psychiatrist and school reform advocate, discussed Hartford teachers’ lower expectations for poor students of color. He stated, “there are too many [teachers] that think low income minority group children cannot learn well” and went on to explain that many of these teachers “don’t understand the community they’re in” or “the learning problem from a developmental standpoint” (Mendoza and Saunders). In addition, Commissioner Gerald Terozzi, who previously asserted that city-suburban school quality was the same, later revealed his concern over the “two Connecticuts” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). He stated that its not a race, but an economic issue in which “children of the poor need so many more resources, support service, so much more attention” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). Terozzi’s voice in the Foster case is significant as he will go on to become a key figure in putting the framework for the State side of the 1989 Sheff case in motion.
Dr. Comer stressed the importance of compensating for economic, social and other stresses that exist in urban areas by finding out the needs of low income children (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). If student needs are not addressed, students will not be able to “develop to a level that’s necessary to be successful in school” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). Likewise, research suggests that the reduction of poverty related environmental stresses not only improves the overall well-being of students but also improves their ability to learn in schools. (Blair 2012).
This lack of resources manifested in students leaving Hartford school district, through either dropping out, as approximately 700 Hartford students did in 1983, or others jumping the line to a suburban district, as Trevor Foster did (Drury 1985a). Bloomfield, on the other hand, had an average family income almost double that of Hartford’s, single parenting and poverty were not major issues, and adults had a higher educational attainment (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). According to Attorney Cardwell, “something unfair” is happening when the poor, middle class, and the rich are educated in separately designated school districts (Mendoza & Sanders 1985).
In addition, the arrests exposed that Hartford’s concentrated poverty also directly led to differences in expectations for learning. Foster believed that city schools such as Hartford Public High School and Weaver High school were geared toward students with special needs (Mendoza & Saunders 1985). For example, Trevor had already mastered the metric system in 7th grade but “couldn’t learn biology in 9th grade because the rest of the class didn’t know the metric system.” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). Attorney Cardwell affirms Trevor’s experience by stating that “inferior educational atmosphere” were often mentioned by parents as a problem in Hartford schools (Johnson 1985). Dr. James Comer, a noted Yale psychiatrist and school reform advocate, suggested that too many teachers assumed that “low-income minority children cannot learn well” (Mendoza & Sanders 1985). Considering the concentration of economic disadvantage in Hartford, Hartford school teachers could have displayed such low expectations onto their students. Research suggests that a teacher’s low expectations are harmful to students’ learning because he or she may use less advanced material and instructions (Rosenthal 1974).
These low learner expectations can also be seen through gaps in achievement, which to parents who choose to jump the line, reflect gaps in opportunity. According to the results from a 9th grade aptitude test in the Fall of 1984, 95.5% of Bloomfield students achieved a minimum or higher level of reading compared to 92.7% of Hartford students (Johnson 1985). Similarly, only 73.5% of Hartford students achieved a minimum or higher math level compared to 87.1% of Bloomfield students (Johnson 1985). Moreover, the need for large scale education reform in Hartford became even more apparent because of the controversy caused by the arrests.
Bloomfield had its own response to the arrests of Saundra Foster and the other mothers of non-resident students, which demonstrated that even Bloomfield leaders realized that going through the arrest process instead of the disenrollment process had been a mistake. The Bloomfield Town Council and the Bloomfield Board of Education joined together to create a resolution outlining steps the school district could take in the future to deal with non-resident students before resorting to criminal proceedings. The steps they listed included were somewhat vague though, as the board listed general aims such as creating a more thorough system for checking residency and allotting money for the enforcement of enrollment policies (Drury).
All of these measures are commendable to a degree and would have been appropriate before Hartford mothers were arrested. The creation of this resolution demonstrated that the arrests were not regular or even necessary actions by the police. The Bloomfield response was an acknowledgment from Bloomfield leaders that a lapse in judgement had been made.
Att.M. Donald Cardwell, who represented Saundra Foster, argued that by using the arrest process instead of the disenrollment process, the Bloomfield police did not solve the problem of non resident students attending districts outside of their home town, but rather drew more attention to the unequal education system that caused the issue. Cardwell asks the question that most likely was brought to the minds of Hartford residents who heard about the case: “how does one steal free, public education?” He goes on to outline the socioeconomic disparities in Connecticut public education, stating “when you educate the poor people in one group, the middle class people in another group, and the upper-class people in the other third group, something unfair is happening to the poor, to the children of the poor” (Mendoza and Saunders).
In 1985, the average income for families living in Hartford was $14,000, with nearly a third of the population living below the poverty line, while the average income for families living in Bloomfield was almost double that. Many, like Mr. Cardwell, argued that disparities in education between these two towns was a colorblind issue, owing not to race but to the socioeconomic gap that existed between Hartford and Bloomfield. Gerald Terozzi, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education in 1985, expressed a similar sentiment, stating “this goes beyond the race issue. This is an economic issue, it’s rich and poor” (Mendoza and Saunders). However, many others recognized that the racial segregation that existed in Connecticut also plays a factor in the quality of education children are receiving. Children in Hartford are a majority children of color, and a long list of historically racist policies contributed to them being most heavily affected by poverty. It is this concentrated poverty brought about by a history of racism that led to Hartford schools having to meet the needs of so many poor students of color.
Fortunately, Saundra Foster’s arrest did not result in jail time. Because of political pressure, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Joseph J. Purtill dismissed the first degree larceny charges on the recommendation of State’s Attorney John M. Baily. Baily stated that “to single out those parents” for jumping the line “could be looked upon as malicious prosecution.” Baily also suggested that “such cases [of non-resident enrollment] are best handled administratively” (1985 editorial, After the Bloomfield Fuss). After Foster’s charges were dropped, it became the accepted norm for Connecticut schools to have administration’s identify students jumping the line and remove them quietly. Local administrations accomplish this through private investigators and letters containing the threat of expulsion of the student to parents, and rarely if ever resort to public arrest and court venue, as Bloomfield did with Saundra and Trevor Foster. The Bloomfield Board of Education also voted to institute a tuition policy for non-residents wishing to attend the school. Charging tuition for non-residents to openly attend Bloomfield schools gave “the school a basis for pursuing civil suits to recover costs for non-residency” (Jones, The Bloomfield Journal 1985). Moreover, the dispute over boundary lines was not quieted by the resolution of Foster’s case, but was propelled with full force back into public and legal discourse through Sheff v O’Neill (1989).