Chapter 5 Challenging the Power Lines
This chapter tells the stories of everyday families and civil rights activists who sought to cross over, redraw, or erase schooling and housing boundaries in metropolitan Hartford, focusing primarily on the past five decades. When comparing these stories, we learn that the tools of privilege do not stand still, but evolve when confronted by civil rights challenges. In turn, this requires newer generations of activists to continually rethink and revise strategies to address the limited successes of prior years. After Connecticut civil rights advocates won legislative bans against overt racial discrimination in public housing in the late 1940s, and most private housing in the 1960s, they needed to create more sophisticated strategies to combat racial steering and redlining practices, since these were more difficult to prove without direct testing and quantitative studies. Similarly, although activists won a 1965 state constitutional amendment for equal public schools, initial efforts to implement this law were equally challenged in moving students or dollars across city-suburban district lines. This portion concludes with the 1996 courtroom victory of the Sheff v O’Neill school integration plaintiffs, where Connecticut’s highest court outlawed the segregation of Hartford minority students, but left the specifics of the remedy to be determined by a suburban-dominated political process.
Mobilizing Against Racial Steering and Redlining
Jumping the School District Line
In 1984, Saundra Foster, a Black single mother living in Hartford, was searching for a better school for her teenage son, Trevor. She described him as “a good kid” who liked to go to school and learned some topics faster than other students, but ran into problems at Hartford Public High School, which in her view was “geared for special education.” Saundra explained that it was “almost impossible” to get Trevor into more rigorous classes, and he was turned down when he tried to raise the issue with his teacher. Trevor was then referred to the district’s alternative education center for students it deemed not suited for regular classrooms. Faced with this bleak prospect, Trevor considered dropping out of high school altogether. This was the breaking point for the Foster family, and Saundra knew she had to take immediate action. “For a child like that to say that he is contemplating dropping out of school, it’s time to start thinking about alternatives,” she later told a reporter.57
Saundra Foster decided to “jump the line” by enrolling Trevor, a resident of the city of Hartford, in the suburban school district of Bloomfield, located immediately to the north. Registering her son to attend a public school outside of her legal residence, without permission, was a serious step; although many parents had done it before, her decision could interrupt his education if they were caught. Saundra decided on Bloomfield because he could live with his aunt, who legally resided in the district. Trevor transitioned well into Bloomfield High School by fall 1984 and even became a starting player in the boy’s varsity basketball team. There was no record of him getting in conflict with peers or teachers and Saundra believed “he was much better off in Bloomfield.” Although she had to live apart from her son, “jumping the line” was the right decision in her mind, because city-suburban school district boundaries were unjust. “I didn’t deal this deck of cards,” she later explained, “I just have to play them,” and her son Trevor “should be able to go where he can to get the best education.”58
Watch Video Excerpt with Saundra Foster, 1985
This video excerpt describes how Saundra Foster, a Hartford resident, and three other Black parents were arrested by the suburban Bloomfield public school district for “stealing” a public education for their children in 1985. Although this local television appearance reveals her discomfort in discussing her case, local and national activists publicized her arrest to draw attention to broader issues of city-suburban inequity. Source: Mendoza and Saunders, The Public File, copyrighted by WVIT 1985, and included here under fair-use guidelines.59
Suburban districts referred to non-resident students like Trevor Foster as “line jumpers,” and school officials usually took administrative action to “disenroll” them from the district. But this case was different. In April 1985, Bloomfield police arrested Saundra Foster and three other parents, and charged them with a first-degree felony for larceny, for “stealing an education” worth $4,000, the average expenditure per pupil. This highly-publicized action was unprecedented in Connecticut, and perhaps the nation, as no one in recent memory had been charged as a criminal for enrolling their child in a public school outside of their home district. The arrests highlighted race and city-suburban boundaries. Of the four, three were Black parents from Hartford (Saundra Foster, Elizabeth Brown, and Claude Johnson), and the fourth was a White parent, Norma Wright, who had previously lived in Bloomfield but moved to the adjacent suburb of Windsor due to a divorce. The timing was intentional. Bloomfield town leaders had authorized the arrest warrants in the early spring, just before town residents were asked to approve the next year’s school budget. Furthermore, White Bloomfield residents became increasingly anxious as the town’s high school tipped from majority-White to majority-Black in the early 1980s. Bloomfield leaders’ decision to introduce a felony charge clearly was designed as a scare tactic to discourage Black Hartford families from “jumping the line” into their racially transitional suburban school district. Town leaders played on then-President Ronald Reagan’s racist “welfare queen” stereotype to portray Black Hartford parents like Saundra Foster as “stealing an education,” but looked the other way when White parents had done the same thing a generation earlier.60
While the arrests drew the public eye and may have intimidated some parents, they also sparked a civil rights debate on the growing disparity between city and suburban schools in metropolitan Hartford. Saundra Foster’s advocates and civil rights activists 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 for all students? These questions were not just important in the abstract. The arrests forced a closer public examination of education inequity across the Hartford region. During the 1980s, city-suburban school district boundaries became increasingly contested 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 of color, in contrast to more relaxed policies towards non-resident White students a generation ago. Although Saundra Foster’s case was eventually was dismissed in court, public criticism against these arrests helped set the context for the landmark Sheff v O’Neill school integration lawsuit four years later, in 1989, where plaintiffs directly challenged the legality of the public school boundaries that divided Hartford and suburban students.
Line Jumping Over Time
“Jumping the line” was a familiar issue in Bloomfield. When police arrested Saundra Foster in 1985, school leaders estimated that perhaps 100 other non-resident students also attended the Bloomfield School District (about 4 percent of the total enrollment), while others disputed that figure. Beginning in the early 1970s, Bloomfield school officials began to investigate suspected non-residency cases, and Bloomfield police officers photographed students as they stepped off city transit buses that rolled down Blue Hills Avenue from Hartford to the suburban high school. In the 1975-76 school year, Bloomfield school administrators held 58 non-residency hearings, and about half of those students were removed from the district. “Parents want a better education and they’re concerned about the discipline problem in city schools,” assistant superintendent Joseph O’Donnell told the Bloomfield Board of Education in 1976. “A few come from Windsor [a neighboring suburb], but most [come from] Hartford…We don’t get them from lily-white suburbs like Avon or Simsbury.”61
In prior decades, most line-crossers moved in the opposite direction, from poorly-resourced rural and early suburban schools to better-resourced city schools. As described in the chapter, A Golden Age for City Schools, Hartford Public High School acted as a magnet that drew 20 percent of its class from outside the city lines, with families paying tuition of about $3 per week, in 1882. Around the same time, Bloomfield town leaders lamented that so many families from their rural community sent their children by railroad each day to attend Hartford’s public schools. “The practice of sending scholars out of town to school-though entirely justifiable and desirable in many cases-has the effect to diminish the interest in our own schools,” Bloomfield leaders observed in 1888. “While it is admitted that the Hartford schools are, in every respect, excellent, there is a tendency among our people to undervalue our own schools.” In the town of Wethersfield, on Hartford’s southern border, a residency scandal arose at a school meeting in 1917. “It was brought out at the meeting that four members of the school board are sending their children to Hartford schools and have no real interest in Wethersfield schools ‘other than to lower the taxes as much as possible’,” the press reported. Decades later, in 1952, the Hartford school district enrolled at least 18 “out-of-town” students whose families paid $240 per year for them to attend the city’s public high schools, even though this tuition was about half of the actual cost per pupil. A family from the White rural town of Marlborough argued in 1959 that their daughter had the right to attend Hartford public schools, at no tuition, by claiming that they kept a residence above the father’s place of business in the city. Overall, Hartford’s widely-acclaimed city school district retained its desirable status among line-crossers through the middle of the twentieth century, and for the most part these non-resident students were allowed to attend Hartford schools, with the caveat that they had to pay tuition.62
But Bloomfield began to attract significant numbers of non-resident students in the 1960s, and as the racial and economic context shifted in the 1970s and 80s, town leaders began treating “line jumpers” very differently. Wayne Porter, the Bloomfield High School principal from 1962 to 1968, recalled in his 1985 letter to the editor that “the problem of non-resident students has existed for many years.” During the “racial unrest” of the 1960s, many White families pulled their children out public schools in Hartford’s North End, and enrolled them in nearby Bloomfield schools, long before they bought or rented property there. “The [Bloomfield] school administration elected to look the other way in order to avoid controversy,” Porter confided. “What seemed like a reasonable policy 15 years ago was definitely faulty. It made it appear there was no policy and that non-resident student enrollment was sanctioned by the Bloomfield public schools.”63
When Bloomfield’s non-resident students shifted from White to Black in the 1970s and 80s, town leaders took a more aggressive stance against “line jumpers,” by launching police investigations and pressing charges against parents like Saundra Foster. Although former principal Porter preferred to frame the events of 1985 primarily as an “economic matter” due to the rising costs of schooling, rather than a “racial issue,” looking back we cannot ignore this racial reality: the suburb criminally prosecuted Black Hartford parents in the 1980s for taking the same actions that they condoned by White Hartford parents in the 1960s.
White racial anxiety at Bloomfield High was driven by the dramatic shift in racial demographics during this period. The school enrolled only 13 percent Black students in 1967, which rose to 37 percent by 1977, then climbed to 62 percent by 1984. But the primary driver of this racial change was plummeting White enrollments. Between 1967 and 1984, the number of Black high school students gradually rose from 160 to 421, while the number of White students sharply dropped from 1073 to 267. Furthermore, Bloomfield High had recently tipped from a White-majority to a Black-majority school in the early 1980s, setting into motion broader conflicts around the case of Saundra Foster.64
Chart of Racial Change at Bloomfield High School, 1967-84
Just as White parents left the city school district for the suburbs in the 1960s and ‘70s, many Black parents sought to follow similar paths, using whatever means were possible. The Project Concern city-to-suburb desegregation program opened new doors in 1966, and enabled nearly 1200 Black Hartford students to attend predominantly White suburban schools at its peak in 1980. But suburban district participation was voluntary, and the total number of lotteried seats available declined to below 800 by 1984, making this strategy more difficult.65 Other Black Hartford parents who earned sufficient incomes sought to rent apartments or buy homes in suburban towns to purchase access into suburban public schools, as many Whites had done a generation earlier. But racial steering by real estate agents, and other forms of housing discrimination, continued to block many Black families from entering White towns or neighborhoods during the 1980s and beyond.66
Given these constraints, Saundra Foster and others registered their children under relatives’ addresses in affordable suburbs such as Bloomfield and Windsor, located on Hartford’s northern border, with growing numbers of Black residents. Both of these districts reported around 20-30 non-residency cases annually in the mid-1980s, though Windsor school administrators handled these through registration checks. By contrast, West Hartford, a wealthier suburb that historically kept out most Black renters and homebuyers, reported only 6 non-residency cases each year, despite having much larger student enrollments.67 Black Hartford parents had fewer familial ties in West Hartford, and their children would have clearly stood out in West Hartford high schools in 1984, each of which enrolled between 10 to 40 Black students.68
Moreover, Bloomfield dramatically shifted its stance on non-resident students when town leaders decided that the police department, rather than school administrators, should investigate and arrest violators. Police charged Saundra Foster and three other parents with first-degree larceny, a class B felony offense that could bring up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000 in Connecticut at that time. Initially, police planned to charge the parents with third-degree larceny for defrauding Bloomfield taxpayers of $4,001, the average expenditure per pupil in Bloomfield public schools. (If students had remained in Hartford schools, the average would have been around $3,700, or 8 percent less.) But Bloomfield police increased the charge to first-degree larceny on the grounds that the crime included an element of “extortion” by parents. When the story broke in March 1985, attorneys at the Connecticut Department of Education told reporters that they had never before heard of a case where local law enforcement pressed criminal charges in a school residency case.69
Through their highly-publicized scare tactics, the Bloomfield police adopted President Reagan’s racial and gendered stereotype of “welfare queens” who “stole” funds from more-deserving taxpayers. But Saundra Foster did not fit this description. She was a Black single mother who also held a white-collar job at Travelers’ Insurance in Hartford.70 Yet even if Saundra Foster had received government assistance, her son would still be entitled to a free, quality, public education. But suburban law enforcement did not care about the state’s constitutional rights to equal educational opportunity. Instead, by appealing to White suburban distrust of Black urban mothers, the police exploited racist and sexist images to uphold exclusionary school district lines.
Some news reporters also played into suburban readers’ anxieties over non-resident students. In the Hartford Courant daily paper, journalists occasionally referred to Hartford residents in Bloomfield public school as “illegal students,” which conjured up popular images of “illegal aliens” on the US-Mexican border.71 The Courant’s political cartoonist highlighted this “illegal” theme by drawing Black Hartford students being smuggled into Bloomfield High School in the trunk of a car, as if they were crossing the US border, with Black suburban students posing questions about the identity of the intruders.72 By labeling Hartford students as “illegals,” the media implied that Hartford students should be denied their state constitutional right to equal educational opportunity, and distanced suburban readers from the growing problem of city-suburban inequity.
Political Cartoon on City-Suburban Borders
Criticizing the Arrests
When police arrested Saundra Foster and three other parents, local and national activists seized this opportunity to call attention to the broader issues of city-suburban inequity and the state’s constitutional rights to equal education. State Senator Frank Barrows, who represented Hartford’s predominantly Black North End and Bloomfield, accompanied Foster when she turned herself in at the Bloomfield police station. Barrows publicly criticized Hartford’s “deplorable” educational system. “It’s a shame that someone has to be arrested while trying to educate their children,” he told reporters, and praised Foster as “the next Rosa Parks.” Reverend Jesse Jackson, the nation’s most prominent civil rights activist, publicly denounced the arrests while speaking in Hartford at the National Association of Black Mayors. “These parents have exposed. . . a two-tier educational system,” Jackson declared. “Other parents should be encouraged to take their children to Bloomfield or wherever good education exists.” Local television publicized the arrests and national newspaper headlines announced that the quality of city schools was on trial in Connecticut. Even Gerald Tirozzi, the State Commissioner of Education, acknowledged his growing concern over the “two Connecticuts” and the widening disparity between urban and suburban public schools.74
Foster’s attorney, M. Donald Cardwell, raised the most provocative question: “How does one steal a free public education?” The underlying issue was not larceny across school district lines, but the growing socioeconomic disparities between districts. The median household income in 1980 ranged from under $12,000 in the impoverished city of Hartford to over $24,000 in middle-class suburbs such as Bloomfield and West Hartford, to nearly $32,000 in upper-class suburbs such as Avon.75 “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,” Cardwell observed.76
When Saundra Foster’s case moved from Bloomfield into state criminal court in May 1985–and public scrutiny of the arrests intensified–the charges against her and the other parents were dropped. State’s Attorney John M. Baily recommended dismissal after he researched Bloomfield’s recent shift on school residency cases from administrative action to police enforcement. Singling out Foster and the other parents, he warned, would appear to be highly selective and “could be looked upon as malicious prosecution.” Furthermore, the Foster case spoke “to the core of the issue of the constitutional right to a free education,” Baily cautioned. “These questions should be litigated. But this is not the right forum.” Judge Joseph Purtill agreed with the State’s Attorney and dismissed the case.77
After the court dropped the charges against Foster and other parents, Bloomfield leaders recognized their mistake in authorizing the arrests, but devised a more acceptable means to heighten enforcement of residency requirements. The Bloomfield Town Council and the Board of Education jointly adopted a resolution to allot more funds to check residency status and enforce policies through school administrative action before resorting to criminal proceedings.78 Also, the Bloomfield Board of Education began charging tuition to non-resident students, which gave the district a legal basis to pursue civil suits to recover costs.79 As educational costs continued to rise during the 1980s, Bloomfield and other suburban districts began to routinely hire residency officers – and private investigators in some cases – to actively police their boundaries. “The student expulsion business is booming,” read the news story that tracked the number of cases identified by school residency officers in towns bordering Hartford, such as Bloomfield, East Hartford, West Hartford, and Wethersfield. “It’s very cost efficient,” noted one suburban school superintendent, who explained that identifying and removing nearly 30 non-resident students saved the district over $130,000, well worth the $30,000 annual salary of the school residency officer, who previously was a town police officer. Local journalists wrote stories about accompanying residency officers on “stakeouts” to catch lime-jumpers. Suburban districts created tougher requirements for new students during school registration, such as showing a property deed, lease, or utility bill as proof-of-residency. Heightened enforcement of rigid city-suburban school boundaries – with administrative enforcement rather than criminal prosecution – became the new norm.80
Saundra Foster gladly stepped away from the spotlight when her case was dismissed in 1985. But the activists who came to her defense continued to raise public awareness of city-suburban inequity, and questioned whether it is possible to “steal” an education that Connecticut is constitutionally obligated to provide to all students. Four years later in 1989, a coalition of Black, White, and Puerto Rican parents from city and suburban schools, along with a creative team of civil rights attorneys, filed their lawsuit to challenge racial and economic segregation in metropolitan Hartford, which came to be known as the Sheff v. O’Neill case.
About the contributors: Vianna Iorio (Trinity 2019) and JiYun Lee (Trinity 2017) both wrote essays on this topic for the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar, which Vianna later merged and revised for this book, in collaboration with Jack Dougherty. Also, Jasmin Agosto (Trinity 2010) and Richelle Benjamin (Trinity 2015) researched school residency sources.
About this book
On The Line is an open-access, born-digital, book-in-progress by Jack Dougherty and contributors at Trinity College, Hartford CT, USA. This work is copyrighted by the authors and freely distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Interational License. Learn about our open-access policy and code repository and how to cite our work.
This book-in-progress was last updated on: 2019-02-13
William Mendoza and Anita Ford Saunders, “Jumping the Line,” The Public File (Hartford, CT: http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/jackdougherty/clips/jumping-the-line/; WVIT Channel 30 television broadcast, August 1985).↩
Dave Drury, “Bloomfield Cracking down on Non-Residents in Schools,” Hartford Courant, March 1985, A1; Paul Bass, “Case on Residency and Schools Halted,” New York Times, June 1985, CN14.↩
Mendoza and Saunders, “Jumping the Line.”↩
Drury, “Bloomfield Cracking down on Non-Residents in Schools”; Dave Drury, “2 City Parents Are Charged in Residence Case,” Hartford Courant, April 1985, AA1; Dirk Johnson, “Quality of City Schools Tested in Trial on Residency: Equity of Schools Tested in Arrests,” New York Times, May 1985, CN1; Mendoza and Saunders, “Jumping the Line.”↩
“Residency Rule Called Good, If Done by Book: Bloomfield,” Hartford Courant, July 1976, 44; Chauncey Bailey, “Non-Resident Students Again Attending Bloomfield Schools,” Hartford Courant, September 1976, 45. Dorothy Billington, the only Black member of the Bloomfield Board of Education in 1985, disputed the estimate of 100 non-resident students, in Drury, “Bloomfield Cracking down on Non-Residents in Schools.”↩
Bloomfield, Town of Bloomfield Annual Report. (Bloomfield, Conn.: Bloomfield Town Clerk, 1888), p. 20, Connecticut State Library; “Kicks on Schools in Wethersfield: Dissatisfaction Expressed at Parents’ Meeting: City Gets Sons of Board Members,” Hartford Courant, April 1917, 11; “Schools Jump Tuition Fees for Out-of-Town Residents,” Hartford Courant, January 1952, 21; “Couple Ask Tuition-Free Schooling for Girl but Residency Is Disputed,” Hartford Courant, February 1959, 6↩
Wayne Porter, “Non-Resident Students Long a Problem,” Hartford Courant, May 1985, B8.↩
Connecticut State Department of Education, The Distribution of Negroes in the Public Schools of Connecticut, 1967-68 (Hartford, 1967); Connecticut State Department of Education, “School and Grade Enrollment by Race, 1977-1984,” n.d↩
Jack Dougherty, Jesse Wanzer, and Christina Ramsay, “Missing the Goal: A Visual Guide to Sheff V. O’Neill School Desegregation: June 2007” (Hartford, Connecticut; Storrs, Connecticut: The Cities, Suburbs and Schools research project at Trinity College and the University of Connecticut Center for Education Policy Analysis, 2007).↩
Lyn Bixby et al., “Some Real Estate Agents Discriminate Against Black Home Buyers: Two Connecticuts Series,” Hartford Courant, May 1989, A1+.↩
Dave Drury, “’Line Jumping’ Is Issue Statewide, Officials Say,” Hartford Courant, April 1985, B1.↩
Connecticut State Department of Education, “School and Grade Enrollment by Race, 1977-1984.” for Hall and Conard High Schools, respectively, October 1984↩
Drury, “Bloomfield Cracking down on Non-Residents in Schools.”; Drury, “2 City Parents Are Charged in Residence Case.”. Dollar amounts were reported by the press in spring 1985. A year later, educational cost reports for the 1984-85 academic year became available and were higher. Net current expenses per pupil were $4,522 in Bloomfield, and $4,216 in Hartford. Connecticut Public Expenditure Council, Local Public School Expenses and State Aid in Connecticut (Hartford: CPEC, n.d.), 1986.↩
Drury, “2 City Parents Are Charged in Residence Case.”↩
Drury, “Bloomfield Cracking down on Non-Residents in Schools.”↩
Bob Englehart, “Editorial Cartoon: Bloomfield High School,” Hartford Courant, April 1985, C8.↩
Drury, “2 City Parents Are Charged in Residence Case”; Johnson, “Quality of City Schools Tested in Trial on Residency”; Mendoza and Saunders, “Jumping the Line.”↩
US Census, Table 57a: Summary of Economic Characteristics for Towns, 1980.↩
Mendoza and Saunders, “Jumping the Line.”↩
Bass, “Case on Residency and Schools Halted.”↩
Dave Drury, “Bloomfield Alters Its Policy for School Residence Cases,” Hartford Courant, August 1985.↩
Jane Latus Jones, “Schools Will Accept Tuition Non-Residents,” The Bloomfield Journal, August 1985, 1.↩
“Residency Officer’s Job Is in Full Swing,” The Bloomfield Journal, November 1985, 9; Jon Elsen, “Bloomfield Officials Laud School Officer’s Work,” The Hartford Courant (1923-1991), April 1986, B2; Rick Green, “Not in His Town: If You Don’t Live in Bloomfield, William Mahoney’s Job Is to Make Sure You Don’t Go to School There,” Hartford Courant, February 1992, H1+; Linda B Hirsh, “Schools to Use New Policies to Exclude Out-of-Town Residents,” Hartford Courant, July 1992, B5.↩