Anti-Deseg Suit Snags Creed Mom

Christopher Peak PhotoThe mother of a Creed student said she’ll add her name to a civil rights lawsuit that could challenge the closure of her son’s high school —  and dismantle the state’s desegregation-driven magnet program.

Lawyers preparing the suit have been sniffing around Connecticut’s regional magnet schools, which are open to suburban students, to find plaintiffs who can reverse Connecticut’s primary initiative to racially desegregate schools.

The attorneys, from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a California-based firm that strategically litigates cases to reduce the size of government, already found seven Hartford families willing to take the state’s educational commissioner to court. And at the soon-to-be-shuttered Cortlandt V.R. Creed Health & Sports Science High School, they appear to have found another client.

Contributed PhotoEarlier this month, the Board of Education voted to close Creed after finding out the school had so few white students that it was being penalized by the state.

Creed parent Catherine Lawson contacted PLF, tried unsuccessfully to get more more families to join her and eventually decided to go it alone as the plaintiff herself. The case, which has not been filed yet, will likely argue that the inter-district magnet program violates students’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.

In February, Oliver Dunford, a PLF attorney, made similar arguments in a federal court filing seeking to overturn racial benchmarks and the choice lottery in the Hartford region.

Those policies are at the crux of a decades-long desegregation effort in Connecticut that resulted from Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark case that found racial isolation in public schools violates students’ rights to a substantially equally educational opportunity. After Connecticut’s Supreme Court justices ordered the desegregation of Hartford area schools in 1996, the state started funding more inter-district magnet schools, which receive more state funds per pupil than their traditional counterparts. The idea is that their expanded offerings will entice white suburbanites to sit alongside black and brown city kids.

PLF’s lawsuit is based on reporting by the Courant that proved magnet schools were leaving desks unfilled rather than accepting wait-listed minorities to hit their integration targets. In a twist on Sheff’s original grievance, PLF’s lawyers now say students are being treated differently because of their race.

Dunford said he has no intention of taking down Sheff; he just disagrees with how the legislature responded to the court order. “The problem is the remedy in this case,” he said in a phone interview. “All we want is a color-blind Constitution.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Children’s Advocacy all responded earlier this month by filing a motion to intervene on behalf of the original Sheff plaintiffs, who say the state’s progress toward integration, however imperfect, should not be undone.

The litigation could open up a larger battleground about the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment. Originally added after the Civil War to ensure that black men became full citizens, the amendment justified race-conscious laws, such as the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau that helped former slaves get housing and schooling.

But some conservative jurists today question whether that original intent still applies, saying any law that treats races differently should be subject to “strict scrutiny.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2007 case that struck down Seattle and Louisville’s school desegregation programs. (Justice Anthony Kennedy forced the court to rule on the limited grounds that the programs weren’t “narrowly tailored.”)

Liberal jurists say that the Fourteenth Amendment recognizes a fundamental difference between the laws that keep races apart and the ones that bring them together. If a school board could prove a “rational basis” for desegregation, they argue its program should stand.

Overtures

Contributed PhotoCreed parents and teachers were open to meeting with PLF until they found out about the organization’s attempts to undo school desegregation plans across the country, including cases in Chicago; Los Angles and Berkeley, Calif.; and St. Louis, Mo.

Founded by former advisors to California Gov. Ronald Reagan and supported by conservative donors, Pacific Legal Foundation seeks to roll back environmental regulations, eminent domain and affirmative action. Its lawyers have made it to the Supreme Court 15 times.

Lawson, a ticked-off mom whose biracial son is headed into his junior year, first reached out to PLF, after a Creed senior had asked her, “Can’t we get lawyers or something?” Her son, who is dyslexic, had vastly improved at Creed, scoring far above what special-education teachers aimed for in his individual education plan. She believed that he wouldn’t get a spot at another inter-district magnet school and would fall behind.

“It sounds to me that we’re going to be ushering our kids in like cattle to Hillhouse,” she said before the vote to close Creed. But in the weeks after, she decided she didn’t want to compete in the lottery and enrolled her son at Hillhouse.

“I’d rather know for sure, have something solid for him, a plan,” she said. “I’m just going to have to lose a little more sleep with him at Hillhouse.”

Second Thoughts

Christopher Peak PhotoLawson initially told PLF that she couldn’t be the lead plaintiff. So another outspoken mom, Maritza Baez, volunteered.

“Maritza has agreed to and will be the ‘face’ of the entire lawsuit! I’ll be behind the scenes assisting her and you with anything you need,” Lawson wrote in an email to Dunford. Baez, she continued, worked “as an advocate for parents due to the laundry list of ... well ... I’ll let her tell you ... I’m not too ‘politically correct’ ... actually ... neither is she…! LOL.”

Baez said she grew suspicious when PLF’s lawyers said they could fly out within a week to meet with her. She really second-guessed her decision when members of NHPS Advocates, a watchdog group, told her that the NAACP and ACLU were teaming up against PLF in the Hartford case.

“I don’t know if I want to do all this,” Baez said she thought. She emailed Dunford, “After further thought and discussion with my family and allies, I am not comfortable taking part in the lawsuit.”

Lawson said she felt “demonized” by NHPS Advocates, who she said misunderstood her aims. “It’s not actually who you’re going up against; it’s who you’re fighting for,” she said. “It’s not only my kids but future kids in New Haven who are denied a better education because of their skin color.”

She then turned to the Board of Education.

Ed Joyner, the board member tasked with looking into it, said he initially considered that legal action might help. But in a phone call to another school district in Michigan, he learned about PLF’s conservative bent. “We want some relief, but we don’t want them to be the ones seen as leading,” he said. “We know what’s best for our own kids.”

“I Want To Fight For Our Kids”

 

After running into dead ends, Lawson decided to become the plaintiff herself.

“I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose. I just want to fight for our kids, because this is an unconstitutional mandate. The Board of Education themselves that night stated that this is wrong; everybody and their mother says it’s wrong. But nobody wants to do anything,” she said in a phone interview. “My thing is, if you’re going to fight, you bring it to a head. I’m just going for it. I don’t know how to explain it; I’m not the lawyer. But if I put my name down on that piece of paper and it affects future generations of kids, I’m all for it.”

Darnell Goldson, the Board of Education’s president, asked other Creed families not to sign up with PLF.

“Pacific Legal is an organization that has consistently fought desegregation,” he said. “I would hope that the families at Creed would not align themselves with organizations who do not have their best interests at heart.”

Lawson disputed that characterization.

“What does it matter what’s in it for them? What does it matter if they gain a billion dollars if they gave our students a voice? What does it matter what’s in it for them if future generations of our students get equal opportunity?” Lawson asked. “I don’t care what they gain from it; I know what we would gain from it.”

Goldson said that the process for moving kids from Creed into new high schools next year will follow state law and not “place kids in a way that discriminates,” he said.

He added that the Board of Education plans to take a closer look at New Haven’s inter-district magnet program in the coming months to see if it’s working. Along with Joyner, the board’s other elected representative, Goldson said he is considering forming a task force to evaluate the program and make recommendations.

“I believe a majority of Board of Education members feel that there is a need to reform the magnet program. It is not achieving the results intended and may be a little outdated for the current environment,” he said. “Frankly, it would be nice to have our neighborhoods, communities and schools desegregated, but my first goal is to get our kids well educated … whether or not that is at a magnet or neighborhood school.”

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posted by: dd on May 29, 2018  11:49am

I wish the district was more honest about the reason why Creed is closing. Creed does not have the lowest percentage of white students in the district. That honor goes to a school with a brand new building. If Creed had the brand new building, then it would not be closing. However, Creed does cost the district a lot of money in terms of rent and transportation which is why it is closing This racial isolation talk is a smokescreen for closing more magnet schools in favor of charters. During the three candidates forum in November, Birks said that “charters give parents another choice opportunity”. I think Harp/Birks are laying the foundation for more “choice opportunities” in the district.

posted by: Peter99 on May 29, 2018  12:44pm

This whole subject (including the state directives) should be the definition of institutional insanity. Too white, too black, too brown. Have we lost our collective minds? Open the entire city school system to the kids and let them go where they want, first come first serve and screw the state. Offer on line selection of a school to attend. Let the kids apply on line with capacity limits on each school that will not allow anymore on line applications when a school is filled. The situation reported in the article is just a little more crazy than my solution.

posted by: Fairhavener on May 29, 2018  1:59pm

Peter99: Yes, we lost our collective minds a while back when we decided that schools in lower income districts should get the same or less funding as schools in wealthier districts.

posted by: Atwater on May 29, 2018  2:35pm

True ethnic/racial integration will never occur until economic segregation comes to an end. The two are interlinked. But, I do think that sooner, rather than later, economic segregation will overtake ethnic/color segregation. No matter what law is passed the oligarchs, affluent yuppies and withering middle class will never allow their progeny to mix with those they consider lower class.

posted by: NHPLEB on May 29, 2018  4:14pm

@ Atwater:  you are correct that what’s left of our middle class does not want to put their kids in failing urban schools. And rich folks have never wanted their kids in public schools,  mingling with the riff-raff.  They have their own failing schools in suburbia,  the pathologies of which never seem to make the news.  And the rich have their boarding schools. 
What disturbs me is the insistent cry that children of color must be “saved”  by suburban/rich/white /middle class (take your pick) students.  Students of color and all students can learn.  Yes,  urban areas have circumstances that require creative approaches we have not yet seen.  But this idea smacks so much of racist, self-hating ideologies that it makes my skin crawl.

Not to mention the folks in New Haven turning on schools within the district, crying that other places must be closed and not their school.  This is just what the powers that be desire: that we tear each other apart instead of focusing our energies on what has been squandered and stolen in New Haven Schools for 30 years. We are our own worst enemies! It makes me very sad to note this.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 29, 2018  9:01pm

Independent of the prospective lawsuit’s merits, I doubt it will save Creed, which I assume is a goal of Ms. Lawson. Even if the plaintiffs win, there is no guarantee that the state will hold Creed financially harmless.  And as DD notes, the school has issues beyond the demographics of its students.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 29, 2018  11:11pm

Check this one out.

It Has to Start Somewhere’: Grass-Roots Drive to Integrate New York Schools.

The middle school in northern Manhattan is named after Booker T. Washington, a champion of education for African-Americans. But in a district where half the students are Hispanic and black, less than a quarter of the 852 students in this selective, high-performing school are from those groups.
Now Booker T. Washington on West 107th Street, also known as Middle School 54, is at the center of a debate over segregation in New York City’s public schools.In the absence of a coordinated policy by the education department, District 3 — a diverse and highly segregated school district that covers the Upper West Side and Harlem — came up with its own desegregation plan for its middle schools, including M.S. 54, which would require them to set aside seats for children with low test scores.The plan is one of an increasing number of desegregation efforts around the city led by local education officials and parents. And while this plan has met with resistance, some of it captured on a viral video of a meeting of angry parents.Josh Kross, 41, a father of three who is white, agreed that something must be done,But Mr. Kross said that the plans failed to address the real problem — the poor education that these children had received until this point — and instead proposed to drop them into middle schools that they could be ill prepared to handle. “The school system is horribly segregated and underserves the underserved, but this isn’t the way to fix it,” he said.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/nyregion/it-has-to-start-somewhere-grass-roots-drive-to-integrate-new-york-schools.html?hpw&rref=education&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT;.nav=bottom-well

posted by: 1644 on May 30, 2018  6:53am

While PLF does ligate cases to reduce the size of government, it also supports free speech and privacy rights.  One of the cases it is currently litigating before the Supreme Court concerns whether police may lie to gain consent to an intrusive search of a home, avoiding the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

posted by: 1644 on May 30, 2018  7:01am

A color-blind Constitution would take-down Sheff, which is all-about color.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 30, 2018  10:29am

1644, Sheff ruled that the state had failed its state constitutional obligations regarding K-12 education. If PLF is successful, we agree that this would undermine the state’s race-conscious remedies to Sheff. But it wouldn’t necessarily affect the court’s findings or the state’s obligation to come up with a race-neutral remedy. One remedy contemplated in the dissent was getting rid of town-based districts. To pick up on Peter99’s point, this would mean opening up the city’s schools. But it would also entail open enrollment in suburban schools, many of which are seeing declining enrollments.This could be done in a race-neutral way, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

BTW, you were correct in our previous conversation about the Superior Court decision regarding the adequacy of the state’s response to Sheff. I was going to acknowledge this earlier, but the comments on the previous article had closed.

posted by: 1644 on May 30, 2018  11:24am

Kevin:  The 1909 town based district law (actually consolidating smaller districts) was the core of the Sheff plaintiffs’ argument that the state was responsible for segregation, and further consolidation would mean less segregated districts, and a lower achievement gap between districts.  Connecticut’s racial segregation, however, does not fall within bright lines.  Is there that much difference between the Hill and Allingtown? Or Dixwell/Newhallville and southern Hamden? Or the East Shore and East Haven?  It’s not as if assigning East Haven kids to Hale will increase integration. To get the integration the Sheff plaintiffs want, we might have to bus kids from Newhallville to Madison, and from Frog Hollow to Avon, and vice versa.  Does anyone want such forced busing?  We know that seats reversed for suburban kids in New Haven and Hartford kids are left empty.  Do we know if all Open Choice seats for urban kids are filled?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 30, 2018  3:07pm

1644, you’re right about the demographics of the neighborhoods you mention. But the state as a whole is still highly segregated. The Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven metropolitan areas are in the top 20 areas nationally for Hispanic/white segregation, out of 362 metro areas. The three CT metros are in the top 45 for black/white segregation.  The rankings are as of 2010, using the dissimilarity index. http://www.ct.gov/opm/lib/opm/hhs/interagency_council_on_affordable_housing/meeting_2013_07-15/interagency_council_-_ai_short_presentation_(7-18-2013_update).pdf

I don’t think anyone is advocating forced busing. But there are lots of suburban districts with declining enrollments. I suspect that racial/ethnic segregation would decrease if these districts were required to take any student from the metro area whose parents voluntarily chose to enroll them there. (Towns are not mandated to participate in the existing Open Choice program.)  And it would probably be cheaper to pay for these students’ transportation than to pay the magnet school bonuses.

I know that magnet school seats reserved for Hartford suburbanites have been left empty. I honestly don’t know whether this is the case in New Haven.

posted by: 1644 on May 30, 2018  3:22pm

Kevin: I believe New Haven keeps the suburban seats empty until Oct 1, when the school census is taken.  After that, mid-year transfers are accepted.  More suburbs would likely participate in open choice if the state paid more than $4K per student (far below costs), but even so I think there are seats empty.  Branford participates, or at least it did until an open choice kid was criticized for anti-semitic bullying (not sure how true it was, but NHI/Branford Eagle made much of it), yet Branford still has declining enrollment.  My assumption is that there just aren’t that many New Haven parents who feel that what would be gained from attending Branford Schools is more than what would be lost be the long ride, as well as being out of one’s element.  Besides, as others have stated NHPS offers a lot for kids set up to take advantage of it.  It seems to be parent involvement, or lack thereof, not NHPS shortcomings, that cause NHPS’s low scores. A parent who cares enough to enroll a kid in Open Choice probably cares enough to ensure their kids does well in NHPS, or Amistad or another local offering, without the long bus ride.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 30, 2018  9:43pm

1644, thanks. But if a school has empty seats, the marginal cost of educating a student is probably less than $4,000. So long as the number of kids in a class is below the maximum in the teachers’ union contract, the district won’t hire a new teacher. (Special ed kids are a different story - the addition of a single kid can have a real cost impact.) And the debt service on the school and its operating costs remain the same.

I suspect NH parents would be more likely to schlep their kids to North Haven, Hamden, or Woodbridge than Branford given the distances involved.

I think we agree that parental involvement is a huge factor in a kid’s success, regardless of where she or he goes to school.