By Anika Singh Lemar (click here for the PDF)
What is a segregated school? State legislative efforts to address school segregation in the 1960s and ‘70s sought to answer that question in statutory text. While many of those statutes have been repealed or amended (Baker, 2013), Connecticut’s Racial Imbalance Act (“RIA”) remains—for the most part—in effect, and its definition of segregation sheds some light on problems that too often escape the attention of policymakers.
The story behind the RIA might sound familiar to fair housing advocates. Like the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”)’s passage in 1968, the RIA’s passage in 1969 was controversial. And, like the federal FHA’s requirement to affirmatively further fair housing, the RIA was not enforced at all for years because, for over a decade, there were no implementing regulations (Lohman, 2010). At the time of the RIA’s passage, legislators generally believed that the then-Commissioner of Education would make no effort to enforce it (Housing Proceedings, 1969, p. 5722). The RIA has remained controversial in the decades since. In fact, its enforcement was suspended for three years in the 1990s, and it was extensively revised in 1998 (Lohman, 2010).
Since the Connecticut Department of Education finally adopted regulations in 1980, the RIA has required Connecticut school districts to report demographic data for each school. An imbalance exists where the minority population of a school differs from that of its district by 25 percentage points. A balance is impending when the difference is fewer than 25 but at least 15 percentage points. Minority is defined in opposition to White. In other words, for the purposes of the RIA, there are two relevant racial categories: White and not White. If, for example, a district is 20% minority, a school in that district is racially imbalanced if the minority population is greater than 45%. Similarly, if a district is 20% White, a school in that district is racially imbalanced if the White population is greater than 45%. Unlike some similar statutes adopted in other states during the civil rights era (e.g., Massachusetts’ 1965 Racial Imbalance Act), on paper anyway, the statute requires that schools act to address segregation regardless of whether it is White students or minority students who are concentrated in a given school.
As a practical matter, however, the statute has only been enforced in the case of schools with excess numbers of minority students. Where an imbalance is determined to exist, a district must develop a corrective plan. Connecticut’s district lines largely follow town lines. There are 172 school districts (and 169 towns) serving a population of about three and one-half million people and a public school population of just over five hundred thousand children. The RIA does not seek to address segregation between school districts. In fact, a bill that would have done so was rejected a year prior to the RIA’s passage (Eaton, 2020). The legislature rejected any obligation by the State to address segregation and instead relied on local actors to fix a statewide problem.
In 1998, the State went a few steps further to undermine the possibility that the RIA would ever lead to desegregation. First, it clarified that a corrective plan “need not result in a district-wide plan or district-wide pupil reassignment.” Second, it required that the Connecticut Department of Education revise the implementing regulations to “allow for diverse schools existing in school districts with minority enrollments of fifty percent or more.” In response, the agency exempted from the statute’s purview schools that might previously have been considered “too White.” In a district with a minority enrollment of 50% or more, even if a school’s minority percentage differs from the district-wide number by more than 25 percentage points, it is not considered imbalanced so long as the minority enrollment is at least 25% and no greater than 75%. For example, in a district, like my own, that is 88.87% minority, a school that is just 25% minority would not be considered imbalanced, despite the 63.87 percentage point differential between the district-wide number and the school number. There are four schools in my own city, New Haven, and 23 schools statewide that would be considered either imbalanced or impending were it not for the loophole baked into the law.
As a result of its local focus, the RIA fails to address “the basic issue in the state…segregation among districts in metro areas, not within the overwhelmingly non-White and poor central city systems” (Orfield & Ee, 2015, p. 11). In addition, it problematizes disproportionately minority schools, but not disproportionately White schools. Black and Brown people in the United States, and here in Connecticut, tend to live in “neighborhoods where Whites represent a much more modest presence than in their larger community” (Frey, 2020). Even as the country as a whole, and individual regions, becomes less White overall, the average White person continues to live in a disproportionately White place (Frey, 2020). In a study of the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in the country, Goetz et al. (2015) found that “[i]n 70 percent of the metro areas in [their] sample, Whites lived in more segregated neighborhoods compared to people of color” and that “[a]verage White isolation … was 25 percent higher than the isolation for people of color” (p. 108). The same is true here in Connecticut (Kolko, 2016).
The RIA, then, fails to capture the fact that in a county, New Haven, that is 15% Black, the entire Madison, Connecticut school district is 0% Black. Madison escapes the scrutiny of the RIA entirely. And Madison is hardly alone. While New Haven County is 15% Black, of 26 school districts in New Haven County, seven districts have a population that is less than 2% Black. (These numbers exclude charter schools, each of which is considered its own school district.)
The RIA, by function of its local focus and its loophole for urban schools that are “too White,” fails to capture segregated White schools. This failure is analogous to the failure in the fair housing policy realm to identify, alongside racially/ethnically concentrated areas of poverty (RECAPS), what Edward Goetz and others (2015) have termed “racially concentrated areas of affluence.” Although civil rights lawyers and activists have repeatedly attacked exclusionary zoning and other policies that reify White space, HUD’s 2015 rule implementing the Fair Housing Act’s directive that the agency affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH) only required jurisdictions to track RECAPs—it did not require identification of places where White people are segregated from other people. But, the AFFH mandate is intended to address all patterns of segregation created by public policy. Federal, state, and local policy have simultaneously “produc[ed] segregated communities of color” and “creat[ed] and protect[ed] areas of White affluence” (Goetz et al., 2015, p. 102). In addition to being the result of historic and ongoing policy choices, White segregation facilitates “opportunity hoarding” and obscures the fact that some groups enjoy higher quality public services than others do (p. 103). In Sheryll Cashin’s (2021) words, the “segregation of affluence facilitates opportunity hoarding, whereby the most affluent neighborhoods enjoy the best public services, environmental quality and private, public, and natural amenities, while all other communities are left with fewer, poorer-quality resources” (p. 111). Concentrated poverty and segregated Black and Brown spaces cannot be understood without understanding the forces of exclusion that create and perpetuate concentrated advantage and segregated White spaces.
Similarly, the RIA’s failure to track and seek remedies for schools that are disproportionately White is a meaningful and substantial oversight. It is well-documented that “[c]ompared to Black children who were not exposed to integration, Black children who were exposed throughout their K-12 years had significantly higher educational attainment, including greater college attendance and completion rates, not to mention attendance at more selective colleges” (Johnson & Nazaryan, 2019, p. 60). In other words, “integration works” (p. 57). It is crucial, however, to understand the mechanism by which it works: “Desegregation required not only the integration of schoolchildren but the integration of teachers, facilities, curricular offerings, after-school programs, public summer school enrichment activities, and the like” (p. 57-58). Where, instead, resources are confined to discrete neighborhoods, public schools fail to offer equitable opportunities to all children. In Cashin’s (2021) words, “[t]he risk for a nation in which elites increasingly live apart from everyone else is that the resources and tax base to pay for programs and institutions that ordinary people need will continue to erode. Worse, those who live in concentrated poverty are likely to be trapped there. In an America that segregates wealth and opportunity from the poor, neither city, suburb, nor rural hamlet will be an engine of upward mobility for poor folk” (p. 119).
In addition, all children, not just children of color, benefit from attending integrated schools. “A growing body of research suggests that the benefits of K–12 school diversity indeed flow in all directions—to White and middle-class students as well as to minority and low-income pupils” (Wells et al., 2019, p. 14). Segregated schools cause harm to all children, not just children of color. Seeking to “fix” only those schools that are disproportionately minority perpetuates the myth that segregation only imposes harm when minority children are concentrated in a single school. Segregation imposes harm because it results in differential allocation of public resources. Segregation imposes harm because it compromises the quality of education provided to all students.
Here in Connecticut, too many students attend schools that are, effectively, racially concentrated areas of affluence. In fact, local researchers have found that three times as many Connecticut residents live in racially concentrated areas of affluence than live in racially/ethnically concentrated areas of poverty (Buchanan & Abraham, 2015).
Despite the RIA’s limitations—failing to address segregation across town lines and granting a loophole for the benefit of White families who prefer to live in urban centers while nevertheless choosing to send their children to disproportionately White public schools—it has had some impact in identifying school segregation within towns. A recent study by Connecticut Voices for Children, for example, used RIA data, among other sources, to find that racial imbalance tends to correlate with exclusionary land-use policies (Sheehan et al., 2020).
Nevertheless, if the RIA were written differently, it could have a much more substantial impact. If it tracked racial disparities comparing individual schools to regions—rather than to the small segregated school districts in which those schools operate – it would force a conversation about the scale at which segregation must be solved and the kinds of solutions policymakers must be willing to embrace. Ultimately, Connecticut’s school segregation problem cannot be solved district-by-district. Connecticut’s school segregation problem is a housing segregation problem.
Housing advocates in Connecticut today are acutely aware of the relationship between housing affordability and integration. Connecticut towns that permit the construction of multi-family housing and have smaller minimum lot sizes tend to be more diverse. Towns like Guilford, where for 61% of the land in town the minimum lot size is four acres (Ellickson, 2021), are not diverse. Guilford’s nominally public schools demand that families have the wealth and income to afford a mortgage on a small mansion. Not surprisingly, given our nation’s stark racial wealth gap, Guilford’s population is 1% Black. Connecticut towns weaponize both school district boundaries and housing policy to continually enforce entrenched segregation. Planning and zoning commissions massively resist integration daily. Commonly citing a desire not to become New Haven, Hartford, or Bridgeport (all diverse small cities) or West Haven or East Hartford (diverse inner-ring suburbs), planning and zoning commissioners refuse to accommodate housing typologies that might be affordable to people who do not benefit from intergenerational wealth. The result is a town like Woodbridge, where the median home value is more than $400,000 and the population is 3% Black, immediately adjacent to New Haven, where 31% of the population is Black. Integration will require changing the way housing units are designed and permitted in order to ensure that the units created are more affordable and that affordable units exist everywhere, not concentrated in a few cities and inner-ring suburbs. To that end, housing advocates like the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the Open Communities Alliance are advocating for the State of Connecticut to require each town in the state to accommodate its fair share of regional housing need, modeled after New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine and echoing California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation paradigm.
Regionalization of schools and liberalization of housing policy have been controversial topics in Connecticut in recent years. Echoing integration’s opponents in both the South and North a generation ago, a substantial number of Connecticut suburbanites have demanded that the State keep its “Hands Off Our Schools” (Megan, 2019) and “Hands Off Our Zoning” (Thomas, 2020). Public hearings on school regionalization and zoning reform have attracted droves of angry parents and homeowners purportedly concerned about “local control” and property values. A richer understanding of how segregation operates in both schools and housing, and the impact on all children, would provide greater context for these debates, which, in a world of ever-increasing inequality, will continue to be live ones over the years and decades to come. ▀
Anika Singh Lemar (email@example.com) is a Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School.
Baker, A. (2013, July 19). Law on Racial Diversity Stirs Greenwich Schools. The New York Times, A1.
Buchanan, M., & Abraham, M. (2015, August 8). Concentrated Wealth and Poverty in Connecticut’s Neighborhoods. DataHaven. https://www.ctdatahaven.org/reports/concentrated-wealth-and-poverty-connecticuts-neighborhoods
Cashin, S. (2021). White space, black hood: Opportunity hoarding and segregation in the age of inequality. Beacon Press.
Connecticut General Assembly Housing Proceedings, Vol. 13, Part 12. (1969).
Eaton, S. (2020). A Steady Habit of Segregation: The Origins and Continuing Harm of Separate and Unequal Housing and Public Schools in Metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut. NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Open Communities Alliance, Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/hartford-segregation-report-2020.pdf
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Frey, W. H. (2020, March 23). Even as metropolitan areas diversify, White Americans still live in mostly White neighborhoods. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/even-as-metropolitan-areas-diversify-white-americans-still-live-in-mostly-white-neighborhoods/
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