“The big educational issue is outcomes…are kids learning, can kids read, write, compute, think. Those are the educational issues that have not been solved,” said state Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, in an interview with the CT Examiner.
To McCrory, and others in the legislature and Hartford community, the most recent settlement in the Sheff vs O’Neill case does little to address the real educational issues in Hartford, where in 2019, 27.9 percent of students were chronically absent, just 47.3 percent met grade-level standards in math and only 17.4 percent met the benchmark on college readiness exams.
The 2022 Sheff vs. O’Neill settlement – which still requires approval by the legislature – requires the state to expand available seats in the Open Choice program, expand seats in interdistrict magnet schools and establish new programs including an early literacy preschool program and a new technical high school magnet operated by Goodwin University. The new settlement also allocates more than $70 million to marketing, updating and renovating school programming and the schools themselves.
The settlement was lauded as a great step toward educational equity by many, including the Commissioner of Education and the Mayor of Hartford. However, many in the legislature and Hartford community don’t see it that way.
“My initial reaction is that it doesn’t speak to any educational issue, it fulfills a lawsuit,” McCrory said. “The Hartford school district wasn’t even at the table when these decisions were made.”
The only individuals at the table – and that signed the lawsuit – were lawyers for the state, the city and the plaintiffs.
“I was an educator for 30 years, 18 of them in Hartford,” McCrory said at an Education Committee Hearing on March 4. “This is the first conversation I have had with anyone involved with the Sheff agreement, that’s disappointing. Our voices were not heard…Not one person who signed this agreement lives in Hartford or sends their child to the Hartford Public School District. There is no way in the world that this would happen in any other community. This is disrespectful in some terms, arrogant in others.”
As Joseph Rubin, Assistant Deputy Attorney General and lead lawyer representing the state on the case, said, this is just how litigation works, it’s private, it doesn’t involve members of the community.
Instead of improving educational outcomes for all students, the primary focus of the Sheff vs. O’Neill case is racial integration and the end to isolation based on zip code.
“The Supreme court says we are required to offer Hartford families the opportunity to send their kids to school in a less segregated environment,” Rubin said. “The only purpose of this settlement is to resolve the complications of this court case.”
At the root, whatever the hopes for the investments proposed by the settlement are, the purpose of the funding is to give Black and Latino students in Hartford the opportunity to go to school with white students outside of the city. It is not to improve the basic educational opportunities and outcomes of students attending Hartford’s neighborhood schools.
“All Hartford students that want to have this opportunity will have it, and the settlement provides a way to calculate that demand,” Rubin said. “All students who choose to apply to open choice or a magnet school would have that opportunity.”
The emphasis on inter-district magnet schools and open choice programs does not take into account what “really works” or “what parents are asking for,” McCrory said.
“There is a great deal of support for charter schools, they have long waiting lists and that is a choice. That is a choice that parents are showing they want,” McCrory said. “But, there are very little dollars put toward charter schools despite this.”
Rubin, Jeff Beckham, the Undersecretary for Legislative Affairs in the Office of Policy and Management and Robin Cecere, the Division Director for School Choice at the State Department of Education reiterated several times that the settlement does not preclude the legislature from making additional investments in or policy changes to improve educational outcomes.
“You guys are supposed to make these decisions, not unelected judges, so we will be returning it to you. You’re making a decision about how much we are going to spend this year and you’ve got to continue to appropriate money. You are not precluded from making other changes you think are relevant,” Beckham said.
Millions to attract white students
The primary idea behind both the urban-to-suburban open choice program and the inter-district magnet schools is that racial integration leads to better outcomes for Black and Latino students. To some, however, that idea alone is fraught.
“While I think segregation is a problem and I think integration is a positive, not everyone who is segregated needs to be integrated to be successful,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “What is it that we are making a good faith effort to do? To educate our kids? Or to be in proximity to other kids?”
Ruben Felipe, the executive director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association, calls the idea inherently racist.
“The idea that we can’t have quality schools in our own communities because the root cause is because they’re not integrated…how am I to interpret that?” he said in an interview with the CT Examiner. “What if you sprinkle some white kids on some black and brown kids they do better? Or with the white kids will come the resources? Either one of them is bad.”
The proposed Sheff vs O’Neill settlement includes $6.8 million to provide or increase athletics at inter-district magnet schools, $7.8 million for enhanced extracurricular offerings at magnets, and regular audits and enhancements of schools that are not yet meeting diversity goals.
Currently, according to McCrory, 30-40 percent of inter-district magnet schools have more than 75 percent black and Latino students. The $14.6 million, according to Rubin, is to help attract more non-Hartford – and likely white or Asian – students.
And, as McCrory pointed out, that $14.6 million might not even work.
“This is all predicated on the fact that parents who are not black and brown choose these options,” he said.
The success of the expansion of open choice is also no guarantee as it depends on suburban districts agreeing to accept more students.
“We tried to open up two choice programs in Norwalk and Danbury and they both failed, so what makes you think that suburban districts are going to take students in Hartford,” McCrory said.
The impact on the rest of the state
If passed by the legislature, the Sheff vs. O’Neill settlement will expand seats available to Hartford students at many inter-district magnet schools and regional technical high schools.
At Friday’s committee hearing, several legislators voiced concerns about the impact these reserved seats would have on students from other towns.
“EC Goodwin Tech would have to set aside slots for additional Hartford students,” said state Rep. Robert Sanchez, D-New Britain. “It would most likely be at the expense of New Britain students that are on the waitlist to get in.”
State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, was also concerned that these “reserved seats” would lower the standards and therefore impact the success of students at technical schools.
“Not every student will succeed in a vo-tech or a vo-ag school,” she said. “Are we lessening our standards to set our kids up for failure?”
Several legislators, including Winfield and McCrory, pointed out that the increase in funding to cover the demands of the Sheff settlement might detract from supporting low-income, minority students in other parts of the state.
“This isn’t going to solve what’s going on in New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury or anywhere else and it could take away resources for the regular schools in Hartford,” McCrory said.