May 20, 2024


World's finest Law

A CT law requires racial balance in public schools. Why are some suburban districts segregated anyway?


On a Wednesday night in early May, officials from the Fairfield school district appeared before the State Board of Education to explain why McKinley Elementary School was out of compliance with the state’s racial balance law for the 15th time in 16 years, with a student body that was 56 percent minority in a district that was nearly three-quarters white.

They blamed the pandemic for distracting them from the issue. They protested that they couldn’t control where families chose to live. They acknowledged redistricting as an option to better balance the district but described that as a “last step” that would “tear apart” the community.

Eventually, as a Fairfield official argued students and families are happy with McKinley the way it is, despite lagging academic performance at the school, State Board chair Karen Dubois-Walton seemed to have had enough.

“I’m sitting here almost needing to check what date we’re in because I feel like I’m hearing an argument for ‘separate but equal’ being made in front of me,” Dubois-Walton said. “And I remember that being struck down quite solidly.”

By the end of the meeting, Fairfield officials had agreed to submit a revised racial balance plan within the next three months, while Dubois-Walton had seen up close why integration has proven persistently elusive for certain Connecticut school districts.

“It was a pretty frustrating conversation on several levels,” Dubois-Walton said later. “This was not the kind of partnership or collaborative planning process I would have hoped to have heard from them given that this is not their first time, that this is actually many, many years of not providing diverse student settings for their white students or for their students of color.”

Despite Connecticut’s liberal self-conception, its schools remain some of the most segregated in the country, with 84 percent of Black students in the state attending schools that are at least 50 percent minority, according to one 2020 report. And while much of that segregation exists between municipalities — with students of color concentrated in a handful of districts — state data shows it also occurs within individual towns, which often have dramatic demographic disparities from one school to the next.

The state’s racial balance law, which requires that each public school in a given district fall within 25 percentage points of the district’s overall racial makeup, is designed to address that issue, to prevent towns and cities from confining students of color to one or two schools while leaving others overwhelmingly white. But decades after its initial passage, the law has failed to curb imbalance in some of Connecticut’s most segregated school districts, several of which have violated the law for decades without consequence.

As of 2022, three Connecticut schools — one in Fairfield, plus two in Greenwich — remain out of compliance with the racial balance provision, while 19 others across eight districts stand in “impending imbalance” meaning they don’t meet the legal definition of imbalance but are not far off. In West Hartford, where until this year at least one school had been out of compliance each year since 1999, five different elementary schools are in impending imbalance.

The racial balance law has numerous detractors, from parents and school district figures who consider it unfair or outdated, to officials who see it as well-intended but toothless, to advocates who worry that it addresses inequality on far too narrow a basis. Its enforcement often leads to complex questions about the value of integration, the sacrifices necessary to achieve it and the relationship between where people live and how their children are educated.

But for those who see classroom diversity as a worthy goal in Connecticut and beyond, the law raises one question above all others: Why, even with a statute on the books, is integration so hard to come by?

‘Sort of a guessing game’

The logic behind Connecticut’s racial balance law is simple and backed by research: Students benefit both socially and academically when they attend racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. Not only does integration improve test scores and shrink achievement gaps, studies have shown, it also reduces racial bias in white students.

“If you have a district where most of the minority students are in one school, the students in the other schools are also suffering,” said Laura Anastasio, a Department of Education attorney who coordinates the racial balance process. “They don’t have the opportunity to be educated among students of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different cultures.”

The framework for the law dates to 1969, the tail end of the Civil Rights era, when the state legislature first barred districts from “substantial” imbalance in their schools. The law was updated in 1980 with specific definitions of “balance” and “imbalance,” then tweaked over the following decades until crystallizing into the system in place today.

Under the current law, the State Department of Education annually collects the racial demographics of all public schools in the state and sorts each into one of three categories:

– Balanced schools are those whose share of nonwhite students falls within 15 percentage points of the district average.

– Schools in impending imbalance are those whose share of nonwhite students falls anywhere from 15 to 25 percentage points above or below the district average.

– Imbalanced schools are those whose share of nonwhite students falls 25 or more percentage points above or below the district average.

In Fairfield, for example, the school district overall is 26.2 percent minority, as defined by the state, whereas McKinley School is 55.6 percent minority, resulting in an imbalance of nearly 30 percentage points. Other districts have schools with the opposite issue, with white populations that far exceed the district average.

After tabulating the data, the Department of Education sends out notifications to school districts with at least one imbalanced school, asking them to submit a plan to achieve better balance. Such plans may include direct solutions such as redistricting but more often feature indirect ones, such as designating certain schools as magnets or renovating school buildings to make them more appealing to families from other parts of town.

The State Board of Education can then either approve a district’s plan or, if they’re dissatisfied with the proposed solutions, ask officials to amend it.

In theory, a racial balance plan executed properly should result in a balanced district, with no schools out of compliance. In practice, districts often return year after year with nearly identical numbers, amending their plans again and again but never achieving the required balance.

“It’s sort of a guessing game,” Anastasio said. “[State Board members] are looking at a plan, and it’s like, ‘Well, we think this might do something to help the imbalance, we’ll give them a shot at doing it, and then if it doesn’t have any effect, we’ll have them amend the plan. We’ve been doing that for quite a few years with a couple of the districts.”

Some of the problem, Dubois-Walton says, is that there is rarely a consequence for a district that has been out of compliance for years or even decades. Under Connecticut statute, the State Board of Ed may initiate a complaint against a district that fails to submit or implement its racial balance plan, a process that can end in legal action, but that has happened only twice on record, most recently in 2011.

“Part of the challenge of why it’s taken so long to get these schools [balanced] is that there’s no real consequence to not making progress,” Dubois-Walton said.

Chronically noncompliant

While numerous districts statewide have been out of compliance with the state’s racial balance law at one time or other, several have been particularly chronic offenders lately.

In addition to Fairfield, Greenwich has had two unbalanced schools for more than a decade, including one that has been unbalanced since at least 1999. In West Hartford, Charter Oak International Academy met the compliance standard this year for the first time in more than two decades but is still one of five elementary schools in town categorized as having impending imbalance.

Hamden’s Church Street School has also been unbalanced in the past and only narrowly avoided that distinction this year, with a 92.2 percent nonwhite student body in a district that is 68.8 percent nonwhite.

As part of the procedure for districts not in compliance, representatives from both Greenwich and Fairfield have met with the State Board of Education in recent weeks. During a presentation to the Board’s Legislation and Policy Development Committee on June 1, Greenwich officials noted that their two unbalanced schools, Hamilton Avenue School and New Lebanon School, had inched closer to compliance in recent years, with the latter benefiting from a new building opened in 2019.

But while both schools, and particularly New Lebanon, are closer to balance as defined in Connecticut’s law than they were previously, state numbers suggest that may have less to do with changing demographics at the schools and more to do with changing demographics in the town as a whole. As Greenwich has become more diverse, the baseline its schools are judged against has changed as well.

In addition to its two unbalanced elementary schools, Greenwich still has five schools in impending imbalance. Even after years of racial balance plans, the town is home to five of the top nine most unbalanced schools in the state and seven of the top 20.

Fairfield’s May 4 appearance in front of the State Board of Ed grew tense at several points, as school district officials questioned the logic of the racial balance law and argued that complying could hurt students in the district, including at McKinley.

“It’s just inherently wrong to me that if a student is thriving or has supports in place, which students at McKinley do, to potentially take them from a school and put them in another school that maybe doesn’t have those supports in place,” Fairfield Board of Ed chair Christine Vitale said. “It just seems somewhat counterintuitive to what is best for them from an educational, social, emotional standpoint, and that is the priority.”

While redistricting often meets resistance from white families who balk at the idea of sending their kids long distances to attend schools they find less desirable, Vitale suggested that Black and Latino parents would be just as unhappy with major changes to the district.

Sure enough, after the meeting several parents emailed the State Board of Ed to oppose any redistricting, not because they wanted to preserve segregated schools but because they valued McKinley’s diversity.

“It is not McKinley that needs to ‘fix’ the problem,” one parent wrote. “It is the other schools that should find ways to attract more diverse populations in order to be more like McKinley.”

Another email came from McKinley’s school social worker, who wrote that only McKinley had the resources to support students from a variety of backgrounds, who speak 25 different languages.

“Our staff are all well-trained and equipped to deal with all of the cultural diversity of our students,” she wrote. “Dividing them and placing them in other schools who do not have this critical mass of supports, both within the school and community, is just cruel.”

According to state data, McKinley is the only of Fairfield’s 11 elementary schools where fewer than 60 percent of students are white. At five of those schools, white students account for more than 80 percent of the total enrollment.

Officials in both Fairfield and Greenwich declined to be interviewed for this story.

Robert Cotto Jr., a Trinity College researcher who studies education policy, said concerns from Black and Latino families at schools like McKinley deserve to be taken seriously. As he sees it, integration shouldn’t come at the cost of those students’ comfort.

“Let’s center and talk to families there and then go from there and see what might be the most logical next step,” Cotto said. “Look at the folks that would probably be the most impacted in whichever direction you go, start with them first. Talk to them first.”

Whereas integration efforts often involve moving children of color from one school to another, Cotto argued that a more fair process would go the other way as well, with some white students jumping to more diverse schools.

Dubois-Walton said she understands the concerns of parents who value multiracial schools like McKinley but that the state has to consider the district more broadly. When parents and officials say only one school is suitable for Black and Latino students, she wonders what that suggests about the other schools in town.

“It’s very painful to hear parents feel like their public school district is not providing them opportunity to look at all the options and that really there’s this one safe place in the entire district,” she said. “That’s not acceptable.”

Tentative progress in West Hartford

From one perspective or other, West Hartford can be seen as one of Connecticut’s worst offenders when it comes to racial imbalance in schools — or as a happy success story of a district gradually integrating after years of false starts.

The town’s history with the racial balance law stretches back to at least the mid-1990s, when the local Board of Ed sought to balance the district through an aggressive redistricting plan, sparking backlash from parents in wealthier neighborhoods. The debate lasted years and at one point grew so heated that local spiritual leaders took out a half-page newspaper ad pleading for calm.

In the end, not only was West Hartford’s redistricting plan defeated, but several Town Council members who supported it were voted out of office, leaving the school district just as racially segregated as it had been previously. From 2000 through 2015, West Hartford had two imbalanced elementary schools, Smith and Charter Oak, every single year, along with various other schools in impending imbalance. In 2006, Charter Oak’s student body was more than 80% minority at a time when the district around it was only 33% minority, marking the largest disparity the State Department of Education has on record.

Even when Smith finally achieved compliance in 2016, Charter Oak remained in violation, as district officials submitted plan after plan but failed to clear the legal threshold for racial balance.

That changed this year, when Charter Oak dipped just slightly below the “imbalanced” category, with a 68.2 percent minority population in a 44.4 percent minority district. Tom Moore, who is leaving the district this month after nearly a decade as West Hartford’s superintendent, credits Charter Oak’s status as a magnet school offering International Baccalaureate programs, as well as the opening in 2016 of a gleaming new building, which has helped attract families from outside the adjacent neighborhood.

“That’s been incredibly powerful to have, instead of what was the oldest or second-oldest building in the district to have the newest building in the district, state-of-the-art,” Moore said. “That has made not just the offerings there attractive but the physical space attractive.”

Moore said the district has aggressively marketed both Charter Oak and Smith (a STEM magnet school) to parents from other parts of town, with events at libraries and preschools.

“West Hartford has made a lot of progress,” Anastasio, from the State Department of Education, said. “With that renovation to Charter Oak, they were able to create a lot of seats in that school … and they’ve had a lot of success with that.”

Still, it’s not clear that West Hartford’s problems are solved. During a recent presentation in front of the State Board of Education’s Legislation and Policy Development Committee, board members congratulated West Hartford officials on their success in bringing Charter Oak into compliance but questioned why so many schools in town remained in impending imbalance.

One board member suggested that West Hartford’s apparent progress, like that of Greenwich, owed largely to the town’s changing demographics, not to action taken by town leaders.

Anastasio said she can easily imagine Smith and Charter Oak running into racial balance issues again in the future. In a town as residentially segregated as West Hartford, some degree of school segregation can become almost inevitable.

“It’s always a challenge trying to really encourage people to use the magnet system when it’s a partial magnet,” Anastasio said, “because a lot of people still don’t want to leave their neighborhood.”

A broader issue

Even those who support the objectives of Connecticut’s racial balance law see it as a small solution to a problem extending far beyond the three or four districts that struggle to comply.

“We could get those districts into balance and we would still have students in Connecticut experiencing a very racially segregated educational experience,” said Dubois-Walton, who is currently running as a Democrat for state treasurer. “As long as we’re looking at this district by district, I think we’re going to continue to push up against this [segregation].”

To promote integration at a broader level, Dubois-Walton proposes expanding Connecticut’s Open Choice program, which allows students, often from the state’s largest cities, to attend school in neighboring towns, thereby reducing segregation not only within individual school districts but also between neighboring ones.

Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy and lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation case, also suggests a more regional solution.

“The ultimate remedy for all of this are regional school systems,” Stone said. “If you had regional school systems the way most other places around the country do, you’d be able to get racial balance a different way.”

Inevitably, any conversation about school segregation overlaps with one about housing segregation. Moore, the West Hartford superintendent, says he doesn’t want to send his kids across town or even across town borders to attend school — and neither do most parents of Black and Latino students, who might prefer integrated schools but not want to leave their neighborhoods to find them.

“That brings up the question, is it an education issue or is a housing stock issue?” Moore said.

According to The Diversity and Disparities Project from Brown University, the Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford metropolitan areas all have “very high” levels of residential segregation, with most white people unlikely to share a census tract with large numbers of Black and Latino people. While towns like Fairfield, Greenwich and West Hartford are somewhat diverse overall, at least relative to other suburbs, they tend to be segregated within town borders.

Naturally, school segregation follows from there.

“Zoning laws and housing discrimination are unavoidably linked to educational outcomes and educational segregation,” said Peter Harrison, executive director of the housing advocacy group Desegregate Connecticut. “Where you allow homes to be built or not dictates a lot of downstream outcomes.”

One antidote for racial imbalance in schools, Harrison said, could be to permit and promote more affordable housing in all parts of these towns, not just in certain corners.

“The idea of busing across town, let alone across different towns, hasn’t, as a structural solution, solved anything,” Harrison said. “You’ve got to put housing in different parts of the towns.”

Cotto recommends another route. While some advocates see integration as the only way for Black and Latino students to access a public education equal to that of white students, he argues the state could accomplish that by simply funding schools equally from one municipality to the next.

That way, Cotto notes, Black and Latino people in Connecticut can live in integrated suburbs if they want — but can also choose to live in major cities without worrying about subpar public schools.

“There are Black and Latino students who are in public schools who are not getting the support that they need in terms of just funding for the schools,” he said. “I would side more on arguing that [equal funding] may be a way to support schools as they exist now, to make them better.”

‘We are all responsible’

Despite resistance in Fairfield, Greenwich and elsewhere in Connecticut, there’s reason to believe the racial balance law has made a difference in integrating schools within Connecticut suburbs.

Fewer schools are imbalanced or in impending imbalance than at most points in the recent past, with formerly imbalanced districts like West Hartford and Hamden in compliance at least for now. Compared to a decade ago — when seven schools were imbalanced and 27 more were in impending imbalance — the current numbers don’t look so bad.

Meanwhile, as part of their efforts to comply with the law, often by seeking to attract white students to magnet programs, many districts have invested in schools with large Black and Latino populations, giving students there access to shiny new buildings and enhanced services.

And yet year after year, the State Board of Education watches the same districts appear to present variations on the same plans, with results that come slowly if they come at all.

“It speaks to the fact that some of the hardest things for policymakers or elected [officials] to change are things that impact people’s schools and impact people’s neighborhoods,” Dubois-Walton said. “It’s why we see real pushback around zoning, we see real pushback on discussions about school districting.”

For Dubois-Walton, who was herself once a Black student in a series of majority white schools, the racial balance law is a small piece of a large conversation about how Americans relate to each other. While it can’t solve segregation in Connecticut on its own, it can offer a glimpse into what communities and their leaders value — for better or for worse.

“We have to get to a place of valuing each other’s humanity and contributions and seeing beyond the stereotypes and racialized lens,” Dubois-Walton said. “None of the people that are coming in front of us representing these Board of Eds, they’re not responsible for that [racist] history in this country, but we are all responsible for how we continue to carry forth these things that are so deeply ingrained.”

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