School choice? Depends where you live.
There are dozens of magnet schools in which Hartford children can apply to enroll. These schools are more diverse than the highly segregated schools in their neighborhood and are less burdened by the abundance of student needs the neighborhood schools in Hartford face.
But the school choice Hartford students enjoy – and the $1.4 billion it cost the state to build the magnet schools over the last decade and the $140 million to operate these schools each year – came only after the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered state lawmakers nearly two decades ago to desegregate the schools in the capital city.
Almost 8,500 Hartford children attend integrated magnet schools with their white peers from the suburbs. In Bridgeport, 930 students were enrolled in the handful of inter-district magnet schools during the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.
The Open Choice program – where students from Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven get to enroll in nearby public schools in neighboring districts – also offers many more seats to students from Hartford than Bridgeport and New Haven.
Ribbens credits the disparity of school options between Hartford and Bridgeport to how the state funds education.
“There is a discrepancy between how the state will fund a program in this part of the state and how they fund it in the Hartford region,” he said.
While the Connecticut Supreme Court’s desegregation decision has forced the state legislature to funnel more funding toward Hartford in an attempt to attract white students into magnet and city students into suburban schools, no such regional integration standards loom for other districts in Connecticut.
The state’s approach to integration
Connecticut lawmakers passed the state's racial balance law during a time of civil unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated the previous year, and people were rioting in cities across the country.
To achieve integration, the law requires districts to report their student demographics for each school. If any school has 25 percent more minorities than the district average, the community must submit a plan to address the imbalance within 60 days. Last school year, four districts were violating the law by having at least one school with demographics far less diverse than their district as a whole. Those districts include Fairfield, Greenwich, Groton, and West Hartford. Additionally, 29 schools across the state are on the cusp of being too segregated.
Many school districts' response to the law is to change attendance zones in the district, close down the school cited for being imbalanced or make it a magnet school in an effort to attract white students from other district schools. And, while local boards complain that the rapid growth of minority communities in their towns make it nearly impossible to stay in compliance, some State Board of Education members are growing impatient with local officials’ inability to integrate their schools.
“One of your schools has been out of balance since 1999,” Joseph Vrabely Jr., a state board of education member from Glastonbury, told Greenwich officials during a recent meeting. “I am looking at a district that has had a balance issue for a long time, and I’m having a hard time accepting this, particularly regarding how many times you have been up here.”
At Hamilton Avenue School in Greenwich, two out of every three students are a minority compared to the districtwide average of one in three students.
Districts that show no progress in integrating schools or fail to have a plan are subject to losing their state funding.
However, the districts in Connecticut that are struggling the most – including Bridgeport and New Haven – are not impacted by this law because their school populations are so overwhelmingly made up of minorities that it is impossible to have a school with 25 percent more minority enrollment than the district average. For example, with 90 percent of Bridgeport's students being a minority, no Bridgeport school could possibly be out of compliance.
John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University who tracks the progress of desegregation efforts, told Connecticut legislators earlier this year that very little is being done to expand the number of desegregation programs.
"If you want to make a difference on a metropolitan scale, it requires more fundamental change," he said.