Demographics Complicate Hartford Desegregation

Susan Haigh, Yahoo! News, December 7, 2014

The shrinking population of white students in Hartford’s suburbs is complicating efforts to comply with Connecticut’s landmark school desegregation settlement–and even making it harder for some of the capital city’s students to attend new schools created to help meet the racial integration goals set by the lawsuit 25 years ago.

State education officials are currently negotiating the latest changes to the agreement, reached with the plaintiffs after they won a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, but say it is becoming harder to attract white students to Hartford’s schools because they’re living farther away.

About half the students living in the 22 communities subject to the agreement, according to state officials, are non-white. That’s up from about 38 percent in 2008, when the parties negotiated a revised timetable for progress on reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation. Another revision was made last year.

“The state is in the position of, how do you meet the requirements of the State Supreme Court given the fact that the demographics of the region have changed so completely,” said Kathleen Demsey, state Department of Education’s chief financial officer who worked for years on the issue. “Financially, it’s a burden for this transportation system, money that could be used for education is being used to bus kids.”

But lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, Sheff vs. O’Neill, say there are still plenty of predominantly white communities in the region that can be drawn from to attract additional students, or where Hartford students can attend school in a racially integrated setting.


The issue of changing demographics has come up before. In 2013, the parties redefined the standard for diversity, allowing Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders to count toward the 25 percent “white enrollment” threshold. Further changes could be among the proposals in this round of negotiations.


Newly released statistics show 47.5 percent of Hartford’s 21,458 minority students are currently enrolled in “reduced-isolation settings,” a marked improvement from 11 percent in 2008. That comes after the state spent about $2.25 billion on new magnets and other programs throughout the region over a 10-year period. Yet the plaintiffs contend that progress falls far short of giving every Hartford student the opportunity to learn in a racially integrated setting.


Unlike other states where there has been forced busing and redrawn school districts, Connecticut’s settlement relies on voluntary desegregation and additional state funding. Parents inside and outside of Hartford can choose to enter a lottery in order for their children to approximately 45 magnet schools. Meanwhile, Hartford students can also choose to attend suburban public schools.

But the makeup of some suburbs is changing: East Hartford, for example, shifted from 23 percent minority enrollment in 1989, when the lawsuit was first filed, to 84 percent in 2013. Manchester jumped from 12 percent to 60 percent, Windsor from 31 percent to 71 percent, and Bloomfield from 74 to 96 percent.

According to the Department of Education, those four towns have the highest participation in magnet schools. That had the unintended consequence of leaving some magnet school seats empty because of the low number of white applicants made it hard to maintain the desegregation standard.


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