Children in the state of Connecticut are being denied access to schools that have plenty of room for them because of the color of their skin. Yup, that’s right. Available seats in the magnet schools of Hartford—and beyond—sit empty despite long waitlists for admission.

And this denial of opportunity is happening in the name of integration.

“Those seats just stay empty, no matter what,” Robinson said. “Even if I want Jarod to have a seat, he can’t get in unless kids from the suburbs come in too. It’s like Connecticut says, ‘You have to have a white kid in a classroom for a black kid to be educated.’”

Year after year, LaShawn Robinson entered her son Jarod’s name into the lottery for one of Hartford’s magnet schools and year after year, he was denied admission even though the school had room for him. Now Ms. Robinson and six other plaintiffs are taking their case to federal court.

After a 1996 supreme court ruling in Sheff v. O’Neill that held that racial segregation in Hartford schools violated the state constitution, lawmakers responded by passing a racial quota law. The law required Connecticut school boards to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation by various methods—including creating magnet schools. To ensure these schools remained diverse, the law required magnet schools’ enrollment to be at least 25 percent white or Asian. In other words, magnet schools cannot have more than 75 percent black or Hispanic students.

That’s right. A law was passed that requires at least 25 percent of the student body in Connecticut magnet schools to be white or Asian. But as it turns out, white and Asian families are not choosing to send their children to Hartford’s magnet schools, largely because they already have high quality schools in their neighborhoods. This dearth of white and Asian applicants leaves huge numbers of seats vacant, despite tremendous demand from black and brown families. And consider this: A family with children of different races can gain admission for the white (or Asian) child but not the black or Latino one. Two children, one family, and the siblings can’t attend school together because they don’t both have the “right” skin color.

The Pacific Legal Foundation has taken up the case and is suing on behalf of LaShawn Robinson and six other Hartford families who believe that their children’s constitutional rights are being denied. The lawyers working on the case are also adamant that the law is unconstitutional.

The Connecticut Parents’ Union is raising its voice too, and held a press conference at the State Department of Education earlier this week calling for “No Empty Seats.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Good School Hunting blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Policy Priority:

Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. She also served a term as an elected school committee member. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system,…

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