School Choice Post Sheff v. O’Neill – Elena Rein

After the Sheff v. O’Neill ruling of 1996, education in Hartford, Connecticut drastically changed. Since Sheff’s implementation over a decade ago, schools in the Hartford area have been required to racially integrate in order to receive funding from the settlement, purportedly ending the isolation of minority children in urban schools through a controlled-choice system. This racial balance is now achieved through a lottery system for magnet schools, which codes for ‘suburban’ or ‘urban’ as proxies for white and minority students, respectively. And though choice for education may be touted as the best way to provide quality, desegregated education for children, the reality of the situation in Hartford leaves much to be desired. Instead of a system through which parents can choose the school that best fits their child’s needs among many viable options, what exists could only be described as a failure to do just that. Hartford’s school system allows racially unequal education to flourish and puts fault on minority parents if the system does not work to their advantage.

The mantra of ‘school choice’ gives the unreasonable expectation that guardians can select among many options the school that their child will attend. However, in reality parents may only choose where they would like their child to go, and then cross their fingers, pray to any gods they may believe in, and hope for a miracle. This miracle could come in the form of acceptance to a magnet school or a coveted open choice spot in suburban public schools. As a parent cited by Debs (2015) says, her child has only a 2% change to get into the particular magnet she was touring at the time. Debs notes that this figure may not be accurate, however the sentiment is clear: inner-city students do not have a good chance to get into the schools their parents quote ‘choose’.

While visiting the RSCO school choice fair in West Hartford last weekend, I began to understand why Aviva, the woman in Debs’ piece, might have thought this daunting statistic true. I spoke to a representative of the Breakthrough Magnet School about the chances of my hypothetical elementary student getting into her school and she shied away from answering my question. When pushed, she quietly informed me that unless I was trying to enter her PreK program (for three and four year olds), my chances were slim. And, since my ‘child’ was already in Kindergarten, I should have backup plans A through Z.

Not only are magnet schools difficult to get into for anyone, but minority students from Hartford are at a disadvantage compared to those from outer ring suburbs. As magnet schools are required to maintain at least 25% non-minority students in the classroom, white, wealthier students are given priority in a system initially designed to help minority, disadvantaged student populations. As a result, over 50% of students from Hartford remain trapped in a failing school system which has neither succeeded in its goal of racial integration, nor received any of the funding that pours into magnet schools following the Sheff ruling.

But other than the requirement to reach a non-white threshold in the classroom, why is the school choice system not working? It would seem a step in the right direction to allow minority parents the chance to choose for their children the best educational environment. And, in theory, perhaps this is true. However, the process of ranking schools to enter the lottery requires a wealth of information much more easily accessible to some families than others. School choice fairs are sometimes scheduled during the workday (forcing a working parent to choose between a much-needed pay check and necessary information about their child’s future) and less educated, minority, and especially non-English-speaking parents often have trouble obtaining such information. Then faced with a daunting choice of 48 magnet schools (you have to rank four), these parents now must weigh a multitude of variables including school theme, distance from home, transportation, food program, student body make up, and test scores. As if this isn’t hard enough, falling in love with magnet schools may only lead to heartbreak as only 25% of families get into any of the four magnet schools they list.

Perhaps the greatest problem with school choice is what happens to those who do not win the lottery. For students in the wealthier suburbs of Hartford, failure to get into a magnet school means being placed in a good public school with substantial resources. However, urban kids who do not win the lottery are left to attend failing and underfunded schools in Hartford. This dichotomy, along with unequal access to information and lottery weighting that assists suburban students, makes the Hartford school choice system inherently unequal. What Sheff has created, therefore, is not a school system that shortens the education gap between white and minority students, but one that hides behind a veil of choice and ultimately fails the students it aimed to assist. Improvements to this system are possible: increasing access to information for parents, removing unfair advantages to suburban students, and most importantly, improving the neighborhood schools that have been thus far ignored. However, only within a system in which all schools perform at a high standard can school choice truly be beneficial to all.

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