Hartford · In the State

The Myth Of Magical Whiteness: Isn’t Intentionally Leaving Sheff Magnet Seats Empty Missing The Point?

Someone once told me, white kids aren’t magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on a school to make it better.

That might seem like an abrasive statement, but it’s what sticks in my mind when thinking about the mindset that has allowed Hartford to develop a system of desegregation that shuts out half of the city’s black and brown children from open seats at high-preforming magnet schools.

As a recent series on the legacy of Sheff v. O’Neill by Hartford Courant reporters Vanessa De Torre and Matthew Hoffman revealed, great schools with ample resources are leaving slots empty because they aren’t meeting racial quotas set by the landmark 1996 State Supreme Court ruling:

“State officials say they have no choice but to open the doors wider for white and Asian children — and sometimes shut the door on minorities. Under the Sheff mandate, schools are deemed integrated only if no more than 75 percent of the students are black or Latino. But for some magnet schools, particularly those in Hartford, too few white and Asian families are willing to leave their home districts. So those who do choose to enter the lottery are given preference over black and Latino applicants to help meet the integration goals.

And at schools that still fall short of the integration goal, principals with open seats in a particular grade are forced to count how many minority students would have to be admitted to get to a white or Asian student farther down the list. If the count is too high — if a school’s waitlist is front-loaded with minority students — those minority children may end up as lottery losers while seats are intentionally left empty.”

Hartford Public Schools is often heralded as a success story for desegregation through voluntary choice, yet, as the Courant’s investigation reveals, neighborhood schools are more racially isolated than they were 20 years ago when the Sheff decision was handed down. These schools, which educate a little more than half of Hartford kids, don’t just lack diversity; there’s also a massive achievement gap.

Doesn’t This Miss The Point?

As the courant put it, “the Hartford region’s massive annual lottery can mean the difference between attending a gleaming, award-winning magnet school — with a specialty theme and perhaps a planetarium — and languishing in a segregated, under-resourced neighborhood school populated in part by other students who were also hoping to go somewhere else.”

Those shiny new schools cost the state billions.  That money was spent with the express purpose of attracting white and Asian students from the suburbs to Hartford. Meanwhile, the schools that educate the majority of Hartford kids were left in disrepair — doesn’t this solution miss the point?

The reason separate but equal was never equal wasn’t because whiteness makes schools better. Sitting next to a white or Asian student doesn’t magically increase a black or latino’s student ability to learn, it was because resources and money tended to follow white children, and apparently still do, if we take Hartford as an example.

The courant’s investigation found that it’s white and Asian students that are given preference at the expensive magnet schools that were built to help Hartford’s impoverished community.

Before the hate mail pours in, I’m not saying integration isn’t an important goal. Research shows that integrated-environments can positively impact the learning process, socially and psychologically, but it’s can’t be the only goal.  Even the Sheff plaintiffs‘ argument hinged on equity. Here’s an excerpt from the ruling:

“the school system failed to provide schoolchildren in the Hartford Public School system with the educational resources necessary to obtain a minimally adequate education.”

Not to downplay the strides madethousands of  Hartford kids benefit from the Sheff reforms,  but if the goal of the city’s integration plan was to improve the resources available to all of Hartford students, how is preventing children of color from reaping the benefits of those resources a helpful solution?

Unless the state believes there is a magic ratio when it comes to integration, it seems resources that could be better spent.





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