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Libertarian Group Drops ‘Racial Quota’ Suit After Connecticut Signs ‘Breakthrough’ Settlement in 30-Year School Desegregation Battle

By Mark Keierleber | February 6, 2020

Hartford resident LaShawn Robinson stands outside the Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts following a press conference to discuss a lawsuit which alleged Hartford integration efforts were unconstitutional. (Mark Keierleber)

When Joshua Thompson agreed to end his lawsuit against Hartford’s school integration efforts, he had mixed emotions. On the one hand, the attorney saw a major victory for black and Latino children trapped in the Connecticut city’s hardscrabble public schools. On the other, it was a missed opportunity to set a federal court precedent.

Last week, the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian nonprofit where Thompson is a senior attorney, dropped a federal lawsuit that alleged that a network of high-performing magnet schools in the Hartford area — created to desegregate the city’s racially isolated education system — relied on an unconstitutional “racial quota” that limited the number of black and Latino students to 75 percent of the schools’ student bodies. Meanwhile, a lottery system to select children for the schools, the suit alleged, gave preference to white and Asian students from the more affluent suburbs. Pacific Legal dropped its lawsuit just weeks after Connecticut policymakers agreed to a historic court settlement in a separate, decades-old school desegregation case that rendered its claims moot.

The Pacific Legal lawsuit was part of a larger effort to end school admissions policies that consider students’ race.

“We’re trying to get what’s best for our clients, and when we get everything we ask for in a lawsuit, we can’t continue to fight it,” Thompson told The 74. “I don’t want to sound too disappointed; I want to sound exuberant. It’s great that they did this on their own, that they didn’t need a court to order them to do this.”

The battle over integrating Hartford’s public schools dates back to a 1989 lawsuit alleging that the extreme racial and socioeconomic segregation between the city’s schools and those in the surrounding suburbs violated the state constitution. In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed, finding that Hartford children “suffer daily” from inequalities caused by racial and economic isolation, and required policymakers to take action. A network of high-performing magnet schools and an interdistrict transfer program were created to encourage voluntary integration. The transfer program allows Hartford students to attend schools in better-off suburban districts.

Those policies brought significant progress, with nearly half of Hartford students now enrolled in integrated schools, said Cara McClellan, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents Hartford students in the 1989 desegregation case.

That court battle remains active 30 years later, with civil rights groups fighting to expand access to the choice school programs for Hartford children. But the recent settlement of that case, announced Jan. 10, brings it closer to a long-term resolution. The agreement adds more than 1,000 additional seats to the magnet schools, nearly 600 of which are reserved for children from Hartford. Additionally, the state agreed to spend more than $2 million to facilitate integration efforts — for example, by recruiting students to the magnet schools and providing incentives to suburban school districts to accept more students from Hartford.

“As long as there is demand for the choice system that is unmet, there hasn’t been full compliance” with the 1996 state Supreme Court decision in the desegregation case, McClellan said. But the new court settlement — and Pacific Legal’s decision to end its suit — are substantial victories for Hartford integration efforts, she said.

The plan also adopts a magnet school lottery system based on students’ socioeconomics, such as family income and educational attainment. For schools to be considered integrated under previous plans, no more than 75 percent of students could be black or Latino and no less than 25 percent could be white or Asian. That goal was eliminated from the new plan, a change central to Pacific Legal’s decision to drop its suit.

Additionally, the agreement sets a goal to educate 47.5 percent of Hartford’s students in integrated settings, up from 44 percent under previous plans.

The “breakthrough” legal agreement in the desegregation case remains active until 2022 and offers a pathway to end court oversight if it creates greater opportunities for black and Latino students from Hartford to attend integrated schools, according to a press release from state policymakers, including Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong.

Though the settlement doesn’t mention racial demographics, McClellan stressed that racial diversity remains the goal of the desegregation efforts.

“When we’re thinking about how to create diverse schools, there are many ways of getting at that,” she said. “Just by considering socioeconomic status, we can create a racially diverse school” because race and class are often linked.

Empty seats

The Pacific Legal lawsuit began after a damning newspaper investigation by the Hartford Courant found that black and Latino students were denied seats to magnet school programs in an attempt to maintain racial diversity and avoid noncompliance with the desegregation case.

In order to meet diversity goals, the investigation found, some magnet schools that failed to attract enough white or Asian children left seats unfilled rather than enroll additional black or Latino students.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for a country that doesn’t treat kids differently based on the color of their skin,” Thompson said. “We are dedicated to equality under the law, and we want to end K-12 education policies that treat kids differently and give kids different opportunities because of their race.”

In fact, the settlement in the desegregation case specifically notes that it does not “impose or establish any racial quota or negative consequences” if its goals go unmet.

Persistent racial segregation in America’s schools has a long history in federal courts, with the most recent Supreme Court decision on the topic stemming back to 2007. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court struck down school assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville that considered the race of individual students when creating integrated campuses. However, the court found that efforts to avoid racial isolation are a compelling state interest and permitted policies that promote diversity, such as by drawing school assignment boundaries in a way that decouples school demographics and racially segregated neighborhoods.

But Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow and director of K-12 equity at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington, said he was happy to see the Pacific Legal lawsuit dismissed because it ends a significant legal challenge to a school integration plan long hailed as a national model.

The Hartford model has been lauded by researchers and policymakers, he said, because the city’s students can choose to be educated in suburban schools and vice versa rather than the burden being placed entirely on black and low-income pupils. Additionally, the effort addresses segregation across school district borders, an important feature because, he said, “most of our economic and racial segregation is between districts rather than within them.” In most parts of the country, districts are not required to address racial segregation between school districts because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1974 ruling in Milliken v. Bradley.

Kahlenberg was hired by the state to help develop the settlement’s focus on students’ socioeconomic status rather than race. Such plans are more legally sound, he said, and have a better chance of mitigating the negative effects of concentrated poverty on schools. The settlement actually strengthens Hartford’s plan as a national model, he said, because the magnet school program will serve more students, and because it shows districts they can integrate schools based on socioeconomics without the fear of facing a lawsuit.

“Some of my progressive friends have worried that conservative lawsuits that went after race would one day go after socioeconomic status, too — that the goal lines would be moved,” he said. But Pacific Legal dropping its suit shows that “they’re drawing the distinction between race and class.”

Though Pacific Legal ended its lawsuit against Hartford’s integration efforts, Thompson said the foundation could target school district policies in other cities next. A separate lawsuit challenging Connecticut magnet school enrollment policies outside the Hartford region is still pending, but Thompson anticipates a similar resolution.

“We won’t stop,” Thompson said, “until the precedent is established that school districts are forbidden from using race in student assignments in K-12 education.”

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