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May|June 2003
When God Goes to Prison By Daniel Brook
The New Brown By Richard D. Kahlenberg
Tibetan Murder Mystery By Ted Kerasote

The New Brown

Integration by class, not race, can fix schools in poor cities.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

KATHERINE ROSARIO, A 15-YEAR-OLD LATINA who lives in Hartford, Conn., catches the school bus that takes her to Chippens Hill Middle School in suburban Bristol at 6:54 a.m. She's lucky to be one of the last of the city kids to be picked up. The first Hartford child begins her two-hour bus ride to Bristol at a quarter to six. Katherine also feels fortunate because there's a long waiting list for Open Choice, the program that gives kids like her, who are desperate to escape Hartford's often abysmal segregated schools, a chance at a first-rate suburban education.

Every school day, Benjamin Doolittle travels 15 miles in the opposite direction, from suburban Windsor into Hartford. A blond, blue-eyed 7-year-old, Benjamin attends a Montessori magnet school just a block away from abandoned houses. His parents feel lucky because this is the only public Montessori school in the greater Hartford area, and because Benjamin is growing up at ease in a predominantly minority classroom. There's a long suburban waiting list for this program, too.

Katherine and Benjamin are exceptions to the pattern of overwhelming segregation in the Hartford area. They also provide a glimmer of hope for public-interest lawyers who are trying to change that pattern. Fourteen years ago, attorneys for the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other groups filed a case in state court that became known as Sheff v. O'Neill, challenging school segregation by economic class as well as race in the Hartford area. In 1996, the plaintiffs won a major victory at the State Supreme Court, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional under state law.

There has been a long struggle over the remedy—suburbanites were panicked that their children would be bused to inner-city Hartford schools—and the case was settled in January. The agreement calls for a major expansion of the programs in which Katherine and Benjamin take part. Currently, about 10 percent of Hartford kids enroll in such integration programs; the settlement calls for 30 percent of Hartford students to attend integrated schools by 2007.

If the goal is met, the programs, which are voluntary, will amount to one of the largest efforts in the nation to integrate urban and suburban students. Hartford will stand in hopeful contrast to a national trend toward resegregation in American schools. Just as important, it will provide a national model for high-poverty urban school districts, not a single one of which has students achieving at high levels.

The 1996 Sheff decision was more far-reaching than previous court decisions in several respects. While most state court decisions address unequal financing of schools, Sheff held that segregated schools, even if equally funded (as in Connecticut), remain unequal. Federal desegregation law allows courts to impose remedies only if it can be proved that the state intended to create segregated schools; the Sheff case held segregation unconstitutional, whatever the cause.

The holding that de facto segregation is illegal has two dramatic implications. First, suburbs cannot hide behind the logic that they should be exempt from desegregation orders because they weren't responsible for promoting segregation. While a 1974 federal court ruling allowed desegregation efforts to stop at the school district line, the Sheff court held that the Connecticut suburbs must be part of the solution under state law. Desegregation efforts must involve wealthy white suburban students, not just working-class city students.

Second, the logic of Sheff is that desegregation must be permanent. Federal court rulings have held that desegregation remedies are temporary responses to root out the vestiges of past de jure segregation. In recent years, cities across the country have been released from desegregation orders, even though de facto racial segregation remains. By contrast, under Sheff, the very fact of isolation is illegal, so remedies to isolation never expire.

By basing its decision on a state constitutional right to equal educational opportunity, the court suggested a path that could be replicated in 18 other states with similar case law. Almost 50 years ago, in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools and ordered segregated white schools to admit blacks. As the federal courts continue to retreat from enforcing the goal of desegregation and the impact of Brown ebbs, Sheff could be a model for school equity in the post-Brown era.

LIKE MANY OTHER CITIES IN THE UNITED STATES, Hartford is separate from, and unequal to, the surrounding suburbs. Only more so. Though nearly half the city's children live in families with income below the poverty line, Hartford is also the capital of the nation's wealthiest state. Once the richest city in America, Hartford failed to expand physically like other cities when industry left. A combination of mismanagement, race riots, and declining economic fortunes fed white flight. The city has lost 40 percent of its total population since 1950. The city schools are 95 percent black and Hispanic, though the state student population as a whole is 70 percent white. More than two-thirds of Hartford's 24,000 students are poor enough to be eligible for free and reduced-price meals, compared with a state average of one-fourth. More than half of the students come from non-English-speaking homes. The city covers a very small geographic area, just 17 square miles, so most of the land is devoted to commercial and government use and the few residential areas are blighted by crime, welfare dependency, and unemployment. One observer said, "It's as if you took 30 blocks of the South Bronx"—and that was the residential base of the city.

On the other hand, Connecticut's teachers rank first in pay in the country and the state's schools are generally among the best in the nation. On the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress, Connecticut has consistently outscored the national average and on some occasions ranked first among the 50 states. But those high averages mask deep inequalities within the state. The most recent data on the Connecticut Mastery Test show striking differences between Hartford and the schools in the 21 suburban towns in the same region.

Of 163 school districts in Connecticut last year, Hartford was last in fourth-grade reading. It was in the bottom five districts in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading and math. At the other extreme, the Hartford suburbs of Simsbury and Avon, which are among the wealthiest districts in the nation, ranked at the very top.

Liberals have pointed out that low-income districts like Hartford generally have smaller tax bases from which to raise revenue for education, and for many years progressive legal strategists in many states have sought to change the way schools are financed. Hartford schools received a major boost in a 1977 case called Horton v. Meskill, in which the State Supreme Court established each child's right to an equal education and ruled that this required the state to establish rough equity in school financing by giving an extra subsidy to poor districts. Today, Hartford spends nearly $11,000 per pupil, more than most of the surrounding suburban districts. The extra money has helped, but clearly not enough, as Hartford schools continue to fail.

Conservatives have pointed out that districts like Hartford often spend inefficiently, pouring resources into bloated bureaucracies. With better management practices and more financial transparency, dollars will be better spent, and education outcomes will improve, they say. In Hartford, the conservative strategy has been tried, and the promised efficiencies haven't materialized. The academic performance of the schools has remained pitiful.

Some liberals and conservatives conclude from the limited success of various initiatives in Hartford and elsewhere that only so much can be done in the face of poverty. Research confirms that the family is hugely important to a child's academic success; on average, low-income families spend less time on schoolwork and watch more TV. But it's hard to pass laws requiring parents to read to their children and turn off the set. And no child gets to pick her parents. So in a society that rationalizes huge inequalities of income and wealth by insisting that we provide equal opportunity and fairness, most people think we must offer something more to disadvantaged kids.

In the words of the 19th-century educator Horace Mann, public schools are supposed to be the "great equalizer." This phrase is invoked routinely by politicians, but they rarely cite Mann's corollary: To serve that function, institutions need to be "common schools," educating the poor and everyone else under one roof.

Today, it is increasingly economic class that segregates American schools. And schools filled with poor children are among those most likely to fail. While rare exceptions exist, a study by the Economic Policy Institute has found that middle-class schools are 24 times more likely to be high performing than low-income schools. The evidence suggests not that poor children cannot learn but that the concentration of poor children in a school can defeat good programs.

Why can't we "fix" schools that have large concentrations of poor kids? Many high-poverty schools spend as little as half as much per student as middle-class schools, and what money they have they generally spend less efficiently because the pressure to make education a jobs program is intense in distressed communities. But even in cities like Hartford, where schools spend as much as suburban schools, and gross mismanagement has been reined in, huge educational problems persist. High-poverty schools have a much harder time providing the key factors of a quality education: an orderly environment, a stable student and teacher population, well-qualified teachers and principals, active parent participation, high expectations, and high-achieving peers.

ALL OF THESE INEQUALITIES HAVE MORE TO DO WITH CLASS than race. The various traits of a difficult learning environment—peers who cut class, watch too much TV, and drop out of high school; parents who don't take part in school affairs—track much more closely by class than by race. Even the widely discussed willingness of some African-American students to denigrate high academic achievement as "acting white" turns out to be closely associated with class.

The central role played by poverty helps explain why racial desegregation efforts in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s worked well in some places, but not in others. In districts that included suburban and urban areas within one jurisdiction, a form of governance typical in the South, race mixing also often involved economic mixing, and achievement gains were strong. Success stories included Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Jefferson County (Louisville), Ky. In Northern communities like Boston, on the other hand, where desegregation efforts didn't involve more affluent suburban areas, the mixing of mostly poor and working-class whites with poor and working-class blacks did little to improve academic achievement.

If equality of opportunity requires more than equality of spending, and if it requires integration by economic class as well as race, then why not directly challenge the fountainhead of inequality—the separation across school district lines of rich from poor?

In 1989, a large coalition of public-interest attorneys representing 17 plaintiffs did just that. Their case was named for Milo Sheff, an African-American student from Hartford who was then 10 years old. John Brittain, a University of Connecticut law professor and an attorney for the plaintiffs at the time, told Harper's magazine that "the most signal fact about Hartford is not that it's 92 percent nonwhite, but that it's 63 percent poor."

In 1990, Connecticut elected a maverick Independent, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., to serve as governor. (Weicker and I have worked together on school reform.) He had been a member of the liberal wing of the Republican Party (when there was one) and had served from 1971 until 1989 in the U.S. Senate, where he crossed swords with conservatives on Watergate, civil liberties, and school busing. A blunt-spoken man, he prided himself on taking principled stands, and he was despised by conservatives when he imposed a state income tax in Connecticut. In his January 1993 state-of-the-state address, Weicker stunned observers by siding with the plaintiffs in Sheff. "The racial and economic isolation of Connecticut's school system is indisputable," he declared. "What matters is that it is here and must be dealt with."

Then as now, the state attorney general was Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat. He had been a volunteer counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the 1980s and was considered a progressive on race. But he was also a very careful politician unlikely to take steps that might anger suburban voters and endanger his political future. On Sheff, Blumenthal failed to take Weicker's lead. Instead, he argued passionately that because the state of Connecticut had not deliberately segregated its schools, it was under no obligation to take any action to desegregate them.

A Connecticut trial judge sided with Blumenthal. But in 1996, on appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned the lower court's decision, agreeing with most of the plaintiffs' argument in Sheff. In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the equal educational opportunity principle required much more than just equal spending. The principle also required the state to take action to address "racial and ethnic isolation," whether or not the state caused it.

While federal constitutional law about desegregation is essentially negative ("Thou shalt not intentionally discriminate"), the court said the Connecticut constitution imposes an affirmative duty on the state to provide equal education and address the "pervasive and invidious impact" of racial and ethnic segregation. Suburban districts need to be part of the solution; they cannot hide behind the argument of local control. The decision was unprecedented in American law. Justice Robert Borden, writing in dissent, said the decision might be "the most significant ruling by this court in this century."

SHEFF DEFERRED THE NOVEL QUESTION of whether concentrations of poverty, without regard to race, violated the state constitution. Instead, the court ruled on racial grounds, arguing that the equal opportunity principle was "informed" by an unusual 1965 amendment to the Connecticut Constitution barring "segregation . . . because of race." This reasoning was unfortunate, noted the University of Virginia law professor James Ryan, because it left the false impression that Sheff was applicable only in Connecticut and the few other states with similar provisions.

Noting that educational research demonstrates that socioeconomic integration matters more than per-pupil expenditure, Ryan said one could press a case demanding that kind of integration in any of the 18 other states that have restructured education spending on the basis of equal educational opportunity or adequacy. (Liberal attorneys and education activists have recently sought "adequacy" rather than "equity" in education since it costs more on average to educate poor kids than others. Adequacy is an absolute concept, so it's more likely to result in leveling up. The most successful example is found in New Jersey, where students in low-income districts on average receive more funding, not less, than wealthy suburban students.)

Each state constitution is different, so Sheff doesn't offer a direct precedent, but it provides a relevant model that changes the paradigm. By holding that equal educational opportunity requires integration as well as spending, the case opens the door to 40 years of social science research that most courts have largely ignored. By rejecting the federal paradigm which requires a finding that segregation was intended, Sheff lays the groundwork for remedies that are permanent and that involve wealthy white suburbs. Given the evidence that equal opportunity is more closely tied to economic integration than to racial integration—and the trend in federal courts that increasingly disfavors race-conscious programs—a number of state courts may take the next logical step: requiring economic integration directly, rather than indirectly.

THE PLAINTIFFS DIDN'T SAY WHAT SORT OF REMEDY THEY WANTED in Sheff, and state politicians weren't eager for aggressive implementation. By 1996, Weicker was out of office and the new Republican governor, John Rowland, pointedly reacted to the decision by saying forced busing would not occur "as long as I'm governor."

State legislators didn't support a comprehensive solution to consolidate Hartford and the surrounding 21 suburbs identified in Sheff into a single district. Instead, they sought to build on a small but successful program of public-school choice that had existed in Hartford since the 1960s. "Project Concern" began as part of Connecticut's effort to seek ways to advance school integration. It allowed a small number of minority Hartford students chosen by lottery to attend suburban schools. A number of studies found that the students made more academic progress, were more likely to attend college, had fewer incidents with the police, and were less likely to become teenage mothers than similarly motivated students who had signed up for the program but had been rejected because of space constraints.

In the wake of Sheff, legislators expanded Project Concern, renaming it Open Choice, and provided financial incentives to create magnet schools in Hartford to draw in white students from the suburbs. The plaintiffs went back to court for more aggressive implementation of the Sheff decision, but a lower court judge said the state's political branches should be given more time to respond. At that point, the plaintiffs chose not to appeal.

The struggle to find a comprehensive remedy had taken almost seven years. While some initial steps had been taken to promote voluntary cross-district integration, these programs reached only 10 percent of Hartford students. Rather than see most of another generation of students miss out on a more aggressive plan, the plaintiffs decided it was time to settle on the best terms they could get.

IN JANUARY, THE PARTIES AGREED ON A FOUR-YEAR, $45 million plan to raise the percentage of students attending integrated schools from 10 to 30 percent. A school is defined as integrated if it has no more than a 70 percent minority population (the percentage of minorities in Hartford and the 21 surrounding suburbs plus 30 percentage points). The plan seeks to double the size of the Open Choice program to 1,600 Hartford students and to build eight new magnet schools accommodating 600 students each. If the state doesn't comply during this period, plaintiffs can bring it back to court. The agreement expires in 2007, when the plaintiffs can seek to go beyond the 30 percent goal.

Because the agreement relies on voluntary choice, rather than compulsory busing, the settlement was met with relief in many suburban communities. In placing its primary emphasis on magnet schools rather than on transporting Hartford kids to the suburbs, the Sheff plan departs from existing interdistrict schemes in places like Boston, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. "We wanted to make Hartford the center," explained Dennis Parker, formerly with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "One of the goals was to change the view that people had of Hartford and view it as a resource."

Will a plan that hinges on drawing suburban students into urban schools work? There is some reason for skepticism. As part of a desegregation decree, the Kansas City school district erected handsome school buildings beginning in the mid-1980s at immense cost, assuming that if you built nice facilities, suburban students would come. But they didn't, because the plan emphasized new buildings rather than innovative educational themes, and the massive expenditure of funds did little to improve the achievement of Kansas City students.

Hartford is banking on better results. Bruce Douglas, a former school superintendent who directs the Connecticut educational agency overseeing the interdistrict effort, noted that Hartford now draws in 1,000 students from the suburbs, while just under 900 participate in the choice program that brings city kids to the suburbs. The Simsbury superintendent Joseph Townsley pointed out that while his district was named one of the top 100 in the nation by The Wall Street Journal, 40 of his students attend interdistrict magnets and another 84 are on the waiting list for one particular magnet school.

State Education Commissioner Theodore Sergi said that magnets have appeared to work for three reasons. First, even in some excellent districts, a small group of parents are dissatisfied, typically with a particular principal or set of teachers, and will look for something different. Second, many families are attracted to specialized schools not available in the suburbs—a school devoted to the performing arts or technology, for example. Third, many parents prefer to have their children go to school in a diverse environment, which is a better reflection of the real world than an all-white middle-class setting. Although most Hartford magnets are majority minority, they are able to attract white parents, contradicting the old rule that once a school becomes 40 or 50 percent minority, white families flee.

Hartford's Montessori Magnet School, located in a tough neighborhood near Trinity College, is run by Principal Timothy Nee. The school is part of the "Learning Corridor," built in an area that once teemed with prostitutes and now houses four magnet schools that surround a campus green. The student body of 262 prekindergarten through sixth-grade students is roughly one-half African-American, one-quarter Latino, and one-quarter white. According to Nee, it ranges economically from "kids that have lived in a car" to "the wealthiest of the wealthiest in the suburbs." Nee said the elementary school has a long waiting list. "Last year, we had openings for about 38 students, and we had 365 applications for those spots."

The biggest draw for parents is the Montessori teaching approach, developed by Maria Montessori, which puts an emphasis on learning from other students and through individual exploration rather than through lectures. Students are placed in mixed-age classrooms and are not given grades or tests. There are no public Montessori schools in the suburbs, these parents said, so they'd have to pay $8,000 to $10,000 in tuition to get this kind of education for their child closer to home. A handful of parents have left because some children from violent neighborhoods have angry outbursts that scare others, but most parents are attracted to both the economic and the racial diversity.

The Multiple Intelligences School is an elementary school located on the campus of the University of Hartford, which sits at the intersection of Hartford, West Hartford, and Bloomfield. The student body of 352 is 69 percent minority, with 58 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The school draws on wealthy communities, like Farmington and Simsbury, but also has kids from very tough neighborhoods in Hartford—four students have lost parents or a brother to shootings in the past year. The Multiple Intelligences School has 1,000 Hartford students and 700 to 900 suburban kids on the waiting list. Opened in 2001, the school is popular in part because of its diversity and its location on a university campus, Principal Cheryl Kloczko said, and in part because it offers an extended day. But the main attraction is the school's organization around the theory of multiple intelligences. Developed by Harvard's Howard Gardner, the theory says that each person has eight intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Even the best conventional schools develop the abilities of students in only the first two and largely neglect the rest. At the Hartford school, students receive instruction as well in the other intelligences for 45 minutes every other day and are graded on performance in all of them.

Hartford's two-way transfer program is meant to overcome the limitations of traditional city-to-suburb transfer programs. As more suburban kids move into Hartford magnets, the Open Choice system is expected to function better because the movement of students into the city will create space in suburban schools. This in turn will allow the choice program to take advantage of economies of scale. As more students travel to the suburbs, the two-hour bus trips to pick up kids from all over Hartford for particular suburban schools will be reduced in length, as more buses will be filled with students from just a few Hartford neighborhoods.

Montessori, multiple intelligence, and performing arts programs won't appeal to everyone, but for the new system to work, they don't need to. If only a small subset of suburban parents and Hartford parents are interested in a particular theme, new communities will be formed that are racially and economically diverse yet bound together by the ideas and values of the school.

THE CORE PRINCIPLE BEHIND SHEFF is that poor families trapped in failing schools should have more choice. But while Americans increasingly favor choice, they also like the idea of public education in a democratic society. While just 14,000 students nationally participate in publicly funded voucher programs, which send students to public, private, and parochial schools, five million students take part in public school choice within districts, and some 300,000 students participate in interdistrict public school choice programs. About 400,000 students take part in economic school integration plans voluntarily adopted by communities from San Francisco to Raleigh, N.C., to counter the corrosive effects of concentrated poverty on education.

Almost half of all U.S. public school students reside in the 19 states where equal opportunity principles have established an affirmative right to equal or adequate spending across district lines. More than 22 million students live in states ripe for an argument that educational equity and adequacy requires economic or racial integration, given the evidence that money alone hasn't done the job.

Clones of the Sheff case—attacking concentrations of poverty as well as racial segregation, across school district lines as well as within—have been filed in Minneapolis (where the case was settled) and Rochester, N.Y. (where litigation is ongoing). If cases for integration prevailed in just half of the suitable states, the decisions would affect 11 million students. Because these decisions would involve the suburbs, and integration by class as well as race, the educational benefits would be far reaching. Brown v. Board of Education is still widely viewed as the most important Supreme Court ruling of the past 100 years. State spinoffs of Sheff could do even more for children today.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools Through Public School Choice. He served as executive director of the Century Foundation Task Force on the Common School, whose report, Divided We Fail: Coming Together Through Public School Choice, was published in 2002.

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