Dollars & Direction vs. Desegregation

The quest to bring urban schools up to par is more about money and curriculum than about whether black kids sit next to white kids in class.

So argued Mayor Toni Harp, weighing in on a debate over how best to move urban education forward 64 years after the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared racially segregated public school unconstitutional and 22 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court in Sheff v. O’Neill ordered the desegregation of public school.

The debate began with a lecture in New Haven last week delivered by leading education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who reported that our public schools are more racially segregated than ever. She called on white parents of privilege to send their kids to majority-black-and-brown traditional public schools; that more than any other step will finally bring equity and justice to urban education, she argued.

This article about Hannah-Jones’ speech set off this extensive, nuanced debate among Independent commenters. Harp — who has played an active role over 21 years as a state senator and now four years and counting as mayor — was asked about the matter during her latest appearance on WNHH FM’s “Mayor Monday” program. She offered a different perspective from Hannah-Jones’.

An edited excerpt of that conversation follows:

White Parents “Demand More”

Christopher Peak PhotoWNHH: A New York Times writer, a MacArthur fellow named Nikole Hannah-Jones ... came to New Haven last week and gave a speech about schools and public education, and she threw a challenge out. She said [since] Brown vs. Board, we’re no better off than we were then. Our schools are as segregated, and in New Haven that’s pretty true still. ... People since then reconsidered what are the important goals here. ... She said that she thinks change today comes from white liberals who believe they support a more just society and diversity actually send[ing] their kids to majority-minority public schools. Instead of sending your kid to that charter school, that private school, that one school in the neighborhood where all the white kids go, live and send your kids to school in a [predominantly black and brown] school, and that’s what will improve education for everybody. Do you think Nikole Hannah-Jones is right?

Harp: I think that we’re looking at the wrong things, in all honesty. I don’t think that it’s necessarily about race. And I’m sure that there are some people who are African-Americans who felt that segregation has really crippled from an economic point of view black businesses, particularly in the South ...

... and historically black colleges and universities.

My daughters both went to Spellman College. They got an outstanding education. They were able to go to almost any graduate school they wanted to go to. My husband went to Howard and got professional degrees there. Even today the historically black colleges, that more and more white people are attending — I think that what they teach us about all of this is that you have to have strong academics no matter, if you want to educate children no matter their color, no matter their race.

I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but when you look at urban areas across the state, across this country, what we see is that the resources to educate kids are just not there.

You have to factor in the higher percentage of low-income kids and special ed kids. Because without those numbers the [financial numbers] do look comparable.

If you have the right curriculum and you believe that you can actually educate kids — then you can do it no matter what color the kids are. But we haven’t had all of that.

Christopher Peak PhotoFirst, we haven’t had the belief. We have a lot of people who say: “If you miss educating kids in pre-school, then you can forget it. You’re never going to be able to catch up.” They’ve done studies to show that. The people aren’t wrong, but I think it’s the wrong belief system to have.

And then no one is looking at the curriculum that we’re teaching our kids and the time on task. That’s across this country, and it’s certainly here. I think that there need to be higher accountability standards, more time on tasks. When you do that you have outcomes like Amistad High School, which is one of the highest testing in the state, and it’s all black and Hispanic.

Oftentimes when you have white parents, they’re going to demand more for their kids. And they’re going to make sure that the resources are there. It’s very complicated in places like New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury. None of these cities are big enough to have the resources to put into their education systems so that they can have longer school days. So that they can make sure that their curriculums are adequate. But when you have an adequate curriculum, there’s enough time on task, you can move people.

So is there any alternative, [in] addressing issues like educational parity, to having all neighborhood schools be good enough that people consider that an option?

I think that’s what we really have to move towards. But we’ve got to make sure that there are the resources to make them good enough. That’s what we had a terrible time doing. In this state frankly because of the economic downturn, we don’t have the same kind of resources.

And two legislative sessions ago we had [state education] money moved from Bridgeport to Westport. ...

We allow this system that says every one of our 169 towns needs to be competitive with the other one and you send your legislators up to Hartford to compete for this money. In fact, we’re not all the same. We don’t all have the same ability to raise revenue for the things that we need to do in our community, not the least of which is to educate our children.

So when you have zoning laws that make it difficult for everybody to live wherever they want to live in our state, the exclusionary zoning, when you have only poor people in certain communities and a limited ability to raise revenue ...  then when you can’t get resources from somewhere other than your property tax, other than the state, it lags behind [towns without as much tax-exempt property]. And then you go and compete for those same resources with those some people who can actually do more on behalf of their kids. It’s grossly unfair.

You brought up charter schools. Chris Peak’s [Independent] article noted that some of the most segregated schools in New Haven are charter schools [like Amistad and Booker T Washington Academy]. But then you have Common Ground High School ... [which is] in fact quite integrated. Is integration important? [Or is the issue that charters] don’t have to take on special ed or some of the other burdens on the New Haven school system?

Often what our folks in New Haven public schools have told us is that a lot of times it may not even be just the special ed kids, but the behavioral problems. Even with our magnets, a lot of the problem people in our suburban schools, they end up coming to New Haven. We end up having to shoulder more than our share of young people that are troubled and need special help. I’ve said: “We are happy to do it in New Haven. Just give us the resources to do it.”

Money Vs. Race

Brian Slattery PhotoSo you’re saying money’s more important than race?

It’s money, and it’s also making sure that you have adequate tools and adequate curriculum, good principals, time on task. Our school days are too short for what we have to overcome. In the meantime, since that’s what we can do politically, we have to find work arounds.

Does that mean that Brown vs. Board and Sheff are wrong, that the fundamental issue is not segregation?

No, I think that you had to start somewhere, and that was an obvious place to start. But it’s an iterative process. As we learn more and more about it, we know that that is not the only thing that can solve the problem, and that is not the only thing that will move our country forward.

We know that given the zoning that occurs and town lines, that we’re not going to solve the problem frankly by integration. Then there’s got to be another way to solve the problem, because we’ve got to have a highly educated workforce. People have got to be educated in order to take care of themselves and their families into the future. You have to have skills to live in the world that we live in.

The world moves as we’re thinking through problems of the 1950s. Here we are in 2018, and the answers have got to be different. We didn’t totally solve the 1950s issues. And we have got to solve the problems of today by dealing with them as best we can.

And is Nikole Hannah-Jones correct that white middle-class parents should make a point of sending their kids to places like Hill Central and Troup?

I don’t think that it hurts to do that, in all honesty. But I don’t know if that solves the problem. There are not enough white liberals to do that who live in town.

I think it [benefits] the white kids to be in the diverse environment. They get their “diversity” education.

Aaron Jafferis ...

He was one of the only two white kids at Hillhouse back in the day when he went there.

He’s a phenomenal thinker, creative personality that is impacting our world. It’s got to be partially because of that. [Click here and here to read about a sampling of the work Jafferis, a hip-hop poet and playwright who tackles tough racial and other social issues, has done in New Haven. Next week a retrospective event will touch on 20 years of his work.]

Did it help Hillhouse, that Aaron Jafferis went there?

I think that it might have, some people. I think that it’s important for white people to understand that black people are just people like they are, and it’s also important for black people to understand the same thing. And for all of the races to get together and to learn that we’re just one humanity.

The way that we’re set up, we all think that we’re so radically different. But it really would make a difference for young people who come to our city to work who are white — it would be nice for them to know and have a realistic view of the people that they’re going to interact with. “Gee this is Joe I went to school with I understand where he’s coming from. ...”

So, bottom line: Integration’s a good goal. It’s not the be all or end all, or even necessarily the number one issue in making the schools better [in your view]?

I think there are other things that are as important if not more important [than racial integration]. I think that if we’re going to have a democracy, we’ve got to have an educated populace.

(Aaron Jafferis’s take, offered in an email after the interview: “White liberal parents sending their kids to majority black and brown schools might be an important way to improve the white kids’ education, as much as anything else.”)


Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below for the full episode of WNHH FM’s “Mayor Monday.”

This episode of “Mayor Monday” was made possible with the support of Gateway Community College and Berchem Moses P.C.

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posted by: anonymous on April 5, 2018  1:02pm

Given that the majority of U.S. children, and for that matter most people in their 30s and 40s in many parts of the U.S., do not identify as white, is there a disadvantage to going to an ultra-segregated school somewhere in suburban New England where nearly all of the teachers and students are white?

Most workplaces are highly integrated now, especially in the 50 largest cities.  Also, given that most of the millennials in the U.S. are not white, college admissions officers are pretty attuned to this issue these days.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on April 5, 2018  1:08pm

I don’t know how a young kid going to a strictly minority elementary school can feel that everything is alright within his or her world…

There is also an argument to be made that city politicians profit by herding/keeping people in racial and ethnic identity groups.

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 5, 2018  1:09pm

Mayor Harp is quoted as saying above;

“I think that it’s important for white people to understand that black people are just people like they are, and it’s also important for black people to understand the same thing. And for all of the races to get together and to learn that we’re just one humanity.”

I couldn’t agree more.

posted by: repmd on April 5, 2018  1:11pm

Although financial support for public education is a factor in achieving success , we just can not continue to flush more and more money down the drain called NHPS. Higher salaries do not address excess teacher absenteeism , a budget of 25 million dollars for transporting students across town when a new school is within walking distance will not solve the problem of children not being able to read at grade level, and an endless usage of consultants will not impact the classroom. I had hoped that a new Superintendent would implement meaningful change but Garth Harris could not create the changes needed. Now we have another person in this position. Will she have the strength and courage to shake up this system? I hope she does.

posted by: Christopher Peak on April 5, 2018  4:22pm

In response to this story about whether other strategies can be as effective as integrating schools, Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, “Sure. But why do these schools consistently and predictably not have the resources? Because they are segregated by race and by poverty. And this is true all over the country. Show me where segregated schools — on scale — are treated equally anywhere in the US & I’ll be quiet.”

posted by: KateW on April 5, 2018  7:00pm

First of two comments:  I totally agree with Nikole Hanna Jones and would go a step further.  Having grown up white in an affluent section of Spring Glen in North Haven in the 1950’s with Yale professor parents, I attended Ridge Road School and on my first day of school in kindergarten, I was randomly seated next to the first black child to ever attend there.  She was shy and sweet and we immediately became friends.  Her father was also at Yale.  On the bus ride home that day, the 5 year old son of another Yale professor said to me that I shouldn’t sit next to her because she was a nigger.  She and I remained best buddies.  But the boy’s comment shocked my sensibilities and ultimately defined my path in many ways.  When I returned from teaching in Africa in 1979 pregnant with my white son, my husband and I deliberately decided to buy a house in downtown New Haven on a street in the Dwight neighborhood that was entirely African American.  I believed that it was and is important for people of different colors to essentially hang out with each other in normal life.  My children attended local schools but I harbored the thought that for high school I might well send them to Hopkins and my son took the exam and got accepted.  A few weeks later he announced to me that he did not want to go to Hopkins – he wanted to go to Hillhouse.  When I asked him why, he said to me “I don’t want to attend some rinky dink Division 3 Prep School”.  I said to him that Hillhouse would be fine, knowing that if he had any problem there that I had the wherewithal to pull him out and send him to Hopkins.

posted by: KateW on April 5, 2018  7:02pm

2nd comment:  In a word, my son had a stellar experience at Hillhouse in every way.  He graduated in 1997 as president of his class, was accepted into 3 Ivy League schools and chose to attend UPENN.  His time at Hillhouse was extraordinary – absolutely great teachers, fabulous athletic opportunities (played 3 varsity sports – football, basketball, captain of track and field – state champions), traveled as a Youth Ambassador, course at Yale which counted as a credit at UPENN and made life-long friends dear to him and they just celebrated their 20th reunion.  Many of his classmates also attended Ivy League and other top notch colleges.  It wasn’t that I demanded more for my white son who incidentally was literally the only white child during the years he attended, but I did enjoy joining with my black peer parents and two wonderful coaches and teachers to do an afterschool “study academy” for kids doing sports where we served them a healthy meal before practices and supported getting homework done.  My main point is that if all the white “flighters” who moved to the suburbs (but still often like to predominate New Haven’s cultural offerings) moved back into the city and sent their kids to local schools, their own children would benefit from the experience and potentially have greater opportunities like my son did.  People are so insecure and precious about themselves that they are just plain chicken and the poorer for it.

posted by: denny says on April 6, 2018  2:37am

Harp..You have to factor in the higher percentage of low-income kids and special ed kids. Because without those numbers the [financial numbers] do look comparable.

Ms. Harp - You also need to factor in the illegal immigrants, and how much they cost

posted by: Perspective on April 6, 2018  8:26am

It is refreshing to hear your son chose the NHPS and was successful in leveraging the opportunities afforded him. Contrary to many of the comments frequently posted on this forum the issue is not always the “system”, but rather the lack of engaging in the offerings of the system.  The Mayor and others continue to postulate this is a skin color or a resource issue.  I believe the goal is to increase the number of engaged individuals in the system no matter what their skin color is who in turn may impact those not as engaged.  I too attended the NHPS and found the school system provided me a richer education (course selection,facilities, culture,etc) than my suburban counterparts.  The issue, in my experience, was finding more students willing to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them rather than finding excuses for their failures.

posted by: 1644 on April 6, 2018  9:25am

denny:  Special ed populations are directly proportional to income.  The higher one’s income, the higher the likelihood your child will be diagnosed as learning disabled. Special ed and ELL populations are often accounted for in state aid formulae, although the inclusion of ELL’s works to the benefits of communities like Greenwich, Branford, and West Hartford, which have high ELL populations.

  Yes,  New Haven could reduce its education costs by being less welcoming to immigrants, especially non-English speaking immigrants.  What impact fewer immigrants would have on communities like Fair Haven is an open question.  It could lead to more vacancies and lower property values, with an tax base erosion.  Alternatively, it could make for a return of the gentrification we saw in the 1980’s. , a movement that stalled in part due the the crack wave, but also due to the cities maintenance of public housing on the river bank, rather than selling the land for entirely upscale housing.

posted by: 1644 on April 6, 2018  9:32am

KateW:  Your story supports the argument that NHPS offers, even at its most maligned school, ample opportunity for a great education for those who want it.  New Haven’s educational shortcoming lie not with the schools or any lack of resources within them, but with the students and their families.

posted by: Hart123 on April 6, 2018  9:53am

Finally. Yes. Exactly. Offer top notch academics and the city schools, not private schools, will be chosen. Not happening now.

posted by: Statestreeter on April 6, 2018  11:25am

Kate W.

The story of your son and some of his peers clearly shows how to achieve success. Unfortunately you don’t seem to understand your own lesson.

You said in closing “if all the white “flighters” who moved to the suburbs (but still often like to predominate New Haven’s cultural offerings) moved back into the city and sent their kids to local schools, their own children would benefit from the experience and potentially have greater opportunities like my son did.  People are so insecure and precious about themselves that they are just plain chicken and the poorer for it.”

Once again the deflection of your own reality and reality itself, especiallly after identifying the solution, is why the problem will never be solved. By your own recited memories white people, where they send their kids to school and your assumed notions of why have nothing to do with the failures or success of our school system or the children in it.

What impacted your child and the children of your black peers is what you and your black peers did. “”I did enjoy joining with my black peer parents and two wonderful coaches and teachers to do an afterschool “study academy” for kids doing sports where we served them a healthy meal before practices and supported getting homework done.””

It exemplifies the importance of parental support that no school system or arm of government can give. What’s seems crazy to me is that after experiencing to solution directly you still don’t get it.

Harp on the other hand doesn’t get it either. Why anyone would even waste their time listening to her advice is beyond me. Harp’s “throw more money at it” plan has been a failure for decades and its legacy will cripple this city for years to come.

In the end hopefully people who read your story can find the obvious solution that still evade you. Then again having the resources to send your son off to private school if your social experiment goes awry is a luxury that most parents, black or white, don’t have

posted by: Noteworthy on April 6, 2018  1:04pm

More Money Notes:

1. Mayor Harp has a fetish for money. It’s all she thinks about; it’s the solution to every problem the city has; more money.

2. This thinking is about as wrong as it can get. The NHPS squanders its money - all together, it spends some $18K per kid per year. As the NYT pointed out some years ago, if the solution were money, then CT and New Haven should have a gold plated educational system.

3. We don’t and aren’t. As long as the mayor remains focused on money and not getting more of it, she will abuse taxpayers and blame “the state” for not giving her more of it.

posted by: Welcome2NewHaven on April 6, 2018  4:45pm

I’m black and attended Foote and Hamden Hall and that decision was based on the fact that smaller and more intimate learning environments were what was best for me to be successful. Hillhouse and Cross could have been the best/ whitest schools on earth, and my parents would still not have sent me there because 5,000+ kids.
Parents should just do what’s best for their child and stop treating their education as a social experiment

posted by: 1644 on April 7, 2018  8:47am

It’s hard to take Harp’s pleas that New Haven is short of funds when she spends thousands on a junket to China, and hundreds of thousands on personal police drivers.  I understand that she is old, and may not longer be able to safely drive herself in an urban environment, particularly at night, perhaps after late evening meetings.  Yet, cannot she use a taxi cab or Uber?  Wouldn’t be much cheaper for the city to reimburse her for cab fare than devote police officers to the mundane task of driving her about?  Most towns give their First Selectman or mayor a car for official business, and leave it at that.  The only other Connecticut mayor that I know of with police drivers is the Bridgeport felon.

posted by: robn on April 8, 2018  6:35am

While I agree that money and therefore resources do help determine outcomes, New Havens money problem has more to do with how it’s spent than how much it is. Fact is NHVs per pupil spending is about 20% above the state average. Unfortunately a great amount of that is spent upon social support for children with broken homes and probably the biggest offender is the very VERY top heavy centralized administration. We just don’t need 100s of six figure salaried administrators. Chop of the head and return those resources to the classroom.

posted by: MarcoHaven on April 8, 2018  10:05am

So the only way to avoid the large school, according to one commenter, is to go to mostly white private schools?

Most of the high schools in this city are small and diverse.

Try a different rationale.

posted by: 1644 on April 8, 2018  3:34pm

Marco:  The movement to smaller schools didn’t begin until about 1990.  For most of the 1980’s, Cross and Hillhouse were the only public high schools.  In the 1970’s and 1960’s, there was, also, Lee.  Prior to about 1960, the city had three high schools, Hillhouse, Boardman, and Commercial, all at York Square.  The small schools were built to address concerns like Welcome’s,  but the trade-off is more limited offering than could be had in a large, comprehensive school.  Independent schools like Hopkins and Choate, and Hamden Hall to a lesser degree, offer broad offerings in a smaller school environment, but at a cost of $30-$50k/student.  Even they have to limit offerings: e.g., Choate has dropped its Russian Studies program, but now offers Chinese.