Written by Peter Piazza, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Education and Civil Rights, and originally posted at the School Diversity Notebook.

Last week, I posted a news roundup that focused on an anti-affirmative action case at Harvard that could have very big consequences. This post is about its K-12 companion case – an anti-school integration lawsuit in Hartford that could have very big consequences. If you missed that first post, here’s the main takeaway from it:

In the Harvard trial, there’s an understandable concern in that Asian American students are disproportionately rated lower in “personal characteristics.” But, SFFA is using this important, yet relatively small, issue to do something very big: end race-conscious admission across all publicly funded universities in the US. Again, you’ll see a similar theme in Hartford.

So, to Hartford, where the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) has mobilized a group of Black and Latinx parents to file suit against the state because their children were not admitted to highly sought after schools in the city’s magnet program. As described in part 1, PLF has been a long-time opponent of school integration, fueling the 2007 Parents Involved case (more about this below). Like the Harvard case, this one represents a relatively new legal strategy in which opponents of race-conscious policy – like PLF and Ed Blum – mobilize non-white plaintiffs in cases that ultimately work against school diversity.

LaShawn Robinson at the Connecticut capital building
(via the Associated Press)

Hartford School Integration: Robinson v. Wentzel

  • Jurisdiction: This part can be confusing. PLF filed suit in a federal court, which puts it in the pipeline towards SCOTUS. However, the key school integration case that applies to CT schools (Sheff v. O’Neill) is a state level case. The Sheff case, decided in 1996, required Hartford to address racial isolation in city schools, leading to the very magnet program that is at stake in Robinson. So, supporters of Sheff are arguing that the Robinson case should be dismissed. There are two key parts of their argument:
    • The state of Connecticut, the defendant in Robinson, never wanted to integrate schools; so, it’s not going to put together a vigorous self-defense in a federal case.
    • There’s a state court hearing scheduled for Feb 2019 to talk about fixes to the Sheff ruling. Integration supporters claim that this is the best way to address the problems raised by Robinson plaintiffs, not a federal trial. A federal judge is currently deciding the jurisdiction for the case, and that decision is expected soon.
  • Plaintiffs: A group of seven parents who are filing on behalf of themselves and their children. LaShawn Robinson is the named plaintiff (pictured above). This article has interesting background about her and about the case in general. And, this blog post – a passionate defense of the case – was written by a friend of one of the plaintiffs.
  • Key claims-
    • Plaintiffs: As defined under Sheff, an “integrated school” in the magnet system is composed of between 25% and 75% students that are not Black or Latinx (called “reduced-isolation students”). Students are assigned to schools based on a lottery, and plaintiffs are parents of Black and Latinx students who did not get their schools of choice in the lottery. As described in this very helpful article:
      • “The plaintiffs argue that the 25% “reduced-isolation student” benchmark is actually an enforceable quota, that the lottery is weighted to account for a student’s race, and that Hartford-area magnet schools are literally reserving 25% of the seats in their school exclusively for students who are not black or Hispanic, thereby creating an impermissible racial classification.” Like the Harvard case, plaintiffs are arguing there’s a kind of backdoor quota.
    • Defendants: This is a really important point – the lottery used to assign students to schools does not include race. As pointed out here, “there was no place on the 2017-2018 lottery application form for an applicant to list their race.” This is the key argument from defendants. Instead of race, the lottery is based on things like home address, school preferences, and where their siblings go to school. After the lottery, if school enrollments fall outside the 25%-75% band mentioned above, schools are at risk of losing some state funding.
  • At issue: So, the Harvard trial largely centers on the use of the “personal characteristics” score, and the Hartford trial centers on what, exactly, is in the lottery and on how the lottery is used. As described here, plaintiffs “allege that the lottery is re-run until the right percentages of student race are achieved and that the Sheff benchmarks for identifying an integrated school are actually unyielding racial quotas which leave classroom seats empty unless they can be filled by reduced-isolation students.”
  • Left out: Another key part of the defendants’ argument – Connecticut has refused to fully fund the magnet schools program in recent years. As you may remember, CT faced another major court case recently – after a state judge required a complete overhaul to the state’s school funding system, the state supreme court overruled the lower court, leaving the status quo in place. As described by that lower court judge, funding in CT is inequitable and “irrational.” Of course, this affects Hartford’s magnet schools. Defendants argue that this (along with other fixes) should be the focus of any changes to Sheff.
  • At stake: There are two big issues here- race as a compelling interest in K-12 school enrollment and charter school expansion.
    • This case could end up being a sort of relitigation of the 2007 Parents Involved decision. Although it’s widely believed that Parents Involved actually ended race-conscious K-12 enrollment, this is a misread of the case. Justice Kennedy actually agreed with the liberal justices that “diversity . . . is a compelling educational goal a school district may pursue,” and that includes “avoiding racial isolation.” But, he then sides with the conservative justices in striking down the Louisville and Seattle plans, not because of the fact that they used racial classifications, but because of how they used race (not narrow enough, in his opinion). This article has a great breakdown/analysis of the case. As a result, states and districts actually have a lot more legal grounds for voluntary race-conscious integration than is widely believed. PLF was behind Parents Involved, and they just narrowly missed their goal. Robinson is their second chance.
    • PLF is also a big supporter of charter schools, including those managed by for-profit groups. However, charter growth has been slower in Hartford, compared to other CT cities, largely because of the magnet schools program. By clearing the desegregation order from Sheff, PLC paves the way for charter operators that use “colorblind” approaches to school enrollment. Not coincidentally, “nearly all of the publicly-funded, privately-managed charter schools in Connecticut are racially segregated.”
  • Most useful/interesting articles-
    • I relied heavily on this article in the summary above, and I highly encourage a full read. This article is also extremely useful. These are two of the most thoughtful and detailed articles that I’ve found so far on this case.
    • This blog post also contains a useful breakdown of the case, while going into more detail about PLF’s potential interest in charter expansion.
    • Lastly, this op-ed was co-written by Elizabeth Sheff herself. Now long removed from her case, she notes the academic benefits of school integration before reflecting that:

“The progress achieved through Sheff consists of far more than just high graduation rates and improved test scores. When students have a chance to learn alongside kids who come from different racial and economic backgrounds, it broadens their perspectives, making them more comfortable with a variety of people and cultures. In our democracy — where different racial groups are not always provided opportunities to interact with one another — an integrated school is a crucial experience that every child should have access to.”

Yeah – it’s a big deal. And, it’s unfortunate (to say the least) that groups like Students for Fair Admissions (the Harvard case) and PLF are exploiting fixable problems and legitimate concerns of non-white students/families as excuses for completely undermining systems put in place to balance the opportunities offered to Black and Latinx students against the enormous social/political opportunities that have been enjoyed by white families (especially wealthy white families) since forever. I’ll track each case and post updates.

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