Anti-Deseg Plaintiff Hunt Resumes

Tom Ficklin PhotoLibertarian lawyers have resumed their search for parents upset by the closure of one magnet high school in New Haven — in order to file a suit that could bring down the entire magnet program statewide.

Attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a Sacramento-based firm that strategically litigates cases to reduce the size of government, showed up in New Haven again last week, trying to find plaintiffs who could overturn the state’s primary desegregation initiative.

The attorneys held an information session at the main branch of New Haven’s Free Public Library to recruit parents who feel that racial bias motivated the closure of Cortlandt V.R. Creed Health & Sports Sciences High School this spring.

In the basement of the Ives Library, PLF’s team of largely white attorneys described the technicalities of civil-rights law, while across the table, a group of black moms fumed about the limited educational opportunities the state offers to minority children.

The event was hosted by the Connecticut Parents Union. Gwen Samuel, a former paraprofessional in New Haven’s Head Start program, said she put the event together with PLF’s attorneys to educate parents on the state’s desegregation program, which she said has resulted in some students being denied seats in magnet schools because of their race — an unintended consequence of efforts to increase those options.

PLF has already filed a case in Hartford based on those claims. The lead plaintiff, LaShawn Robinson, said Thursday that her son was first on the waiting list for his top-choice school, but the district chose to leave the desk empty rather skew toward a racial imbalance. PLF argues that violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.

(The plaintiffs in Sheff also say they oppose leaving desks empty. “The state currently places a cap on the number of magnet school seats, which has led to empty seats at magnet schools and too many students on waiting lists,” said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, who’s been fighting the case since the beginning. “The school lottery system is not the culprit, and the Robinson lawsuit is disingenuous and threatens to reverse the gains to address racial inequalities in Hartford. The parents and advocates behind Sheff oppose the empty seats and have repeatedly returned to the court to force the State to do more by expanding capacity at the magnet schools to meet student demand.”)

The attorneys are now looking to see if they can mount another challenge outside Hartford, and Creed, a inter-district magnet school since 2013, appears to be their primary target.

Connecticut largely built its inter-district magnet program in response to Sheff v. O’Neill, a landmark 1996 ruling by the state Supreme Court finding that racial isolation in Hartford-area schools prevented students from achieving a substantially equal educational opportunity. The state helped build new magnet schools like Creed to offer more opportunities for quality integration. But as in the case of Creed, that ended up meaning that sometimes white suburbanites got picked over black suburbanites to meet new racial quotas.

The lawyers who originally filed Sheff, from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Advocacy Center, said they agree the state still needs to do more. But they think the remedy should be toughening the state’s response to Sheff, rather than overturning the precedent it set.

The inter-district magnet schools receive extra money from the state in the hopes that their new buildings and expanded curriculum will attract white kids from the suburbs to sit alongside black and brown kids from host cities.

According to a law passed last year, Sheff’s benchmarks now apply statewide. All magnet schools across the state are now supposed to be at least 25 percent white, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American or some combination of those races by 2020.

In May, New Haven’s Board of Education voted to close Creed. Faced with a massive $19.4 million budget deficit, Superintendent Carol Birks recommended shuttering the school because the State Department of Education (SDE) had threatened it with financial penalties for not making any substantive progress toward racial diversity.

At the time of its closure, fewer than one-tenth of the students were white. The SDE said it planned to deduct $121,000 from its payment this year and de-magnetize the school entirely if its demographics continued to slide.

PLF started snooping around the school after the vote. One parent, Catherine Lawson, the mother of a biracial son, initially volunteered to be the face of a lawsuit, but she pulled out. (She did not return a phone call last week.) Altogether, Oliver Dunford, PLF’s attorney, said he’d nearly snagged 15 potential plaintiffs from Creed, but each one eventually changed their mind.

“We are interested in bringing a lawsuit against that law, the statewide expansion,” Joshua Thompson, one of PLF’s attorneys, said on Thursday. “If you know mothers or families that want to their kids to attend magnet schools but they’re on a waitlist or for whatever reason they can’t get in, have them contact us.”

Most of the women at the meeting were from other cities, like Hartford, Waterbury and Meriden; aside from two journalists, the only Elm City resident present was a former alder, Brenda Foskey-Hill.

But while the meeting didn’t yield any clients immediately, the parents talked about why they feel the inter-district magnet program hurts their children, who are stuck in neighborhood schools.

“There’s no pressure to integrate into the failing schools, right? And there’s no pressure to have a certain number of black children in the suburban schools, right?” asked Athena Wagner, a Waterbury mom. “So this whole thing is discriminatory, racially unbalanced to the core?”

“Absolutely,” said Thompson. He said that Sheff’s proponents often point to the fact that about half of the students in Hartford now attend a magnet school, but he argued that leaves the neighborhood schools more racially isolated than ever before.

Thompson said that PLF is hoping to bypass state precedent by bringing the case right to federal court. “Connecticut Supreme Court had their chance,” he said. “They’ve been litigating this for 30 years. It’s time to get a resolution under the [U.S.] Constitution.”

The organizations who originally challenged the constitutionality Hartford’s school system said they too are disappointed with the state’s slow progress toward integration. The Sheff attorneys admit that the state’s magnet program does not help kids who are stuck in neighborhood schools, but they say that’s why they’re continuing to fight in court.

“We’re still as angry as we were in 1989, when Sheff was filed, because we still fundamentally believe that the civil rights issue in all of these cases is the fact that black and Latino children continue to not have access to quality, integrated schools,” said Cara McClellan, a Skadden Fellow at NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. “That’s what we’ve been fighting for 22 years at this point,” since the Supreme Court’s decision, “ creating more access and more remedies through Sheff for segregated schools. We’re not giving up on that.”

Along with lawyers from the ACLU and the Center for Children’s Advocacy, McClellan will be returning to court over the next few months to defend Sheff’s original holding.

Before a federal judge, they’ll argue that PLF’s lawsuit challenging Sheff’s remedies should be handled in state court, since the case is rooted in the state constitution’s guarantees of a substantially equal educational opportunity, not federal rights.

And later this winter, before a state judge, they’ll continue the ongoing litigation in Sheff to ask the state to establish a long-term plan to set sustainable funding levels for the inter-district magnet schools in the cities and open choice slots in the suburbs, after repeated mid-year budget cuts to both programs.

They’ll also echo the same complaints from the moms who met in New Haven about how to reach students in neighborhood schools. “The fact that 50 percent of black and Latino students [are now enrolled in magnet schools] is great,” McClellan added. “It’s a huge improvement, but we’re not done.”

Other advocates said the most effective way to continue integrating schools is by expanding Sheff.

“We are not fighting to keep seats open or to close schools. We are fighting to require the state of Connecticut to make available to all students the opportunity to attend high-quality, integrated schools,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s racial justice program. “Closing schools and leaving seats empty is the result of policies that limit funding to schools or that fail to provide the resources necessary to create and maintain the highest quality schools for all students.”

PLF’s attorneys have said that they don’t want to touch Sheff’s core ruling that a segregated education violates students rights; they’ve said they just want to overturn the state’s way of remedies, its inter-district magnet school program and its racial isolation benchmarks.

McClellan said that argument doesn’t make sense to her. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s no right without a remedy. The case has no meaning without actual integration impacting kids,” she said. “This is not a theoretical case; it practically impacts over 22,000 children. Sheff is nothing without a remedy that impacts kids.”

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posted by: Politics 101 on September 10, 2018  12:14pm

Stop funding the schools that are disproportionately white and Asian.

posted by: westville man on September 10, 2018  12:21pm

Interesting that no one states (nor does Sheff hold) that white kids in the suburbs are “racially isolated”.  The silent assumption is that Black kids can’t learn without white kids sitting next to them. That’s a racist assumption. 
If it’s simply establishing quality schools, stick with that.  White parents aren’t concerned about integration or we wouldn’t be moving to Guilford or Madison for “good schools” and “good neighborhoods”.  Integration can’t be a one-sided goal, which it has been for centuries here.  White folks have never had it as a priority.  Actions speak louder than words…..

posted by: 1644 on September 10, 2018  12:42pm

Given that the project of “de-magnetization” was just one of many factors in the decision to close Creed, I would think that PLF would have difficulty winning its case.  As for the Sheff plaintiffs, more seats only help if they attract more white students.  The fact is, seats for white kids are already empty because the demand by whites is not there:  the pull of the magnets is too weak to overcome the pull of predominantly white, neighborhood schools.

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 10, 2018  1:05pm

Why doesn’t PLF work on reuniting children with their families and getting them away from ICE?

posted by: NHPLEB on September 10, 2018  1:48pm

Surely- politics 101-  you know not what you ask for.  Are you saying that white and asian students do not deserve to or have a right to a public education.  Please tell your real name so you can be brought up to civil rights court for denying students their educational rights.

To All— Sheff versus O’Neill was all about racial isolation first and quality education second. People were suckered into believing that there was something magical about suburban schools and just sitting next to white students would rub off somehow.  Then,  it became all about the real color issue- GREEN as in money-  Urban schools fought like tigers to win the white students from suburbia and the dollars that followed them. Again, not about education.  Creed was threatened with loss of GREEN,  so NHPS closes it down. Hillhouse can be as black as 100%  and no one cares. WHY? No GREEN attached.
  This system is fundamentally flawed,  dishonest,  and corrupted to its core. It is nothing more than social experimentation with our children and we have paid the price.  The quality of education offered is still poor in urban areas but now some white kids can be dragged down with the black and brown and asian kids.  That’s some gooooood   equality;  ain’t it?

posted by: Teachergal on September 10, 2018  3:51pm

One issue I saw working in a popular magnet school is that suburban sending schools were sending white students with special needs. This did not help our black population and took additional monies from our minimal special ed budget. I did not see any help from suburban and city kids working together. 😝

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on September 11, 2018  7:59am

Politics 101, what is your frame of reference in determining which schools are “disproportionately white and Asian”? If it is towns, your proposal would have little effect - I doubt that the proportion of white and Asian kids in a town like North Haven varies much from the racial split of school-aged kids there. If your framework is statewide, most schools would lose their funding. Good luck with that, legally as well as politically.

Westville Man, six of the original Sheff plaintiffs were white students attending Hartford and suburban schools. The assumption is not that black kids can’t learn without white kids sitting next to them.  Rather, the plaintiffs argued that black and white kids both do better in integrated schools. Going to one of Athena Wagner’s points, one the remedies established in the wake of Sheff was a program that bussed Hartford students to suburban districts.

posted by: Politics 101 on September 11, 2018  9:17am

If we’re going to defund racial imbalance in schools that are disproportionately black and brown, as the new (?) state policy on magnet schools requires, why not defund racial imbalance in schools that are disproportionately white and Asian. That way we would be attacking the source: white flight and the federal and state policies that enable it and cause it.

I’m not suggesting this is immediately feasible. I am suggesting that most of us need to change our perspective here (I’m looking right at you white liberal parents who clutch their pearls when Republicans denounce college affirmative action but don’t think twice about sending your kids to K-12 schools that are disproportionately white and Asian).

posted by: westville man on September 11, 2018  9:48am

Kevin, did you read the decision? They only talk about racial isolation in terms of urban schools. You don’t see white suburban families clamoring for integration to improve their schools. My point was grounded in the real world, not in a hypothetical.

And please know that is not a dig at you. I happen to enjoy reading your posts as they are among the most informative and balanced on a variety of topics.

posted by: Wooster Squared on September 11, 2018  11:02am

I’m amazed at the level of soft bigotry toward minority students in this article and the comments section. Why is there an assumption that white children have some sort of magical power to improve the academic performance of minority students simply by sitting in the same building?That’s a pretty ugly belief to base school policy around, i.e. racial group X cannot perform well unless in the presence of racial group Y. All groups have the potential to perform at the highest levels, with the right type of education and appropriate level of parental involvement, emphasis on the latter.

I love my children and think the world of them, but I’m not arrogant enough to to believe anyone will do better in school just by being in their presence.

posted by: 1644 on September 11, 2018  12:45pm

Wooster:  The bigotry is not in the comments.  The racism is in the Sheff opinion, and in the brief of John Brittain, now Dean of DC Law School. 

Politics 101:  What disproportionately white & Asian schools are you speaking of?  To my knowledge,  there are no disproportionately white & Asian magnet schools.  In fact, other than the NHPS magnets located in the suburbs,  I don’t think any suburban district operates any magnet school at all,  so there is no magnet funding to take away.

posted by: Politics 101 on September 11, 2018  12:59pm

Nobody is suggesting the thing Wooster Square suggests. A simple Google search will suffice to provide academic research and thinking on the reasons why desegregation and integration matter. It’s not because white children are magic. It is because resources and the political will to do better often accompany white children. As a society, we are not willing to subject them to the ills to which we subject other children. If our classrooms are integrated, they are better resourced. (As an aside, I can’t believe we now live in a day and age when we have to explain to people why these things matter.)

posted by: 1644 on September 11, 2018  2:45pm

politics:  Urban system have pretty much the same, and often more, resources than suburban districts.  The link here is from 2013, but you can nonetheless see that some districts, such as East Haven, whose students perform better than those of New Haven,  spend less money per pupil than New Haven.!/vizhome/Perpupilexpendituresbyschooldistrict2013/Dashboard3

As many NHI stories and commentators have said,  New Haven schools offer plenty of opportunity for those who wish to take advantage of them.  You can see that opportunity within New Haven’s system:  Nathan Hale receives about the same as schools with darker student bodies, yet its students do much better.  As the Supreme Court said in the CCJEF v. Real case, the problems lie with “adequate parenting, financial resources, housing, nutrition and care for their physical and psychological health ... not being met.”  Conversely, students with adequate parenting, money, housing, food, etc., would be (and are) able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by urban districts, so would not necessarily lobby for more resources, because the system would met the needs of their children.

posted by: 1644 on September 11, 2018  8:09pm

politics: This graph, stolen by CCJEF, illustrates its argument:

The tall kid doesn’t need the box to see the game; likewise, the white kid from Madison with good parents, a stable home and finances doesn’t need a school counselor, or after-school programs, etc.  If he does need help, his parents will hire a shrink, private tutor, or whatever extra help he needs.  He will do alright in an under-resourced school because his parent will take care of him.  NHI did a piece a while back on Booker T.  The kids are poor and black, but the school requires parents to be involved.  Caring, involved parents seemed to be the key to Booker T.’ success.