Tom Ficklin / photo
Gwen Samuel (Tom Ficklin / photo)

NEW HAVEN, CT — Libertarian lawyers have resumed their search for parents upset by the closure of one magnet high school in New Haven — in order to file a suit that could bring down the entire magnet program statewide.

Attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a Sacramento-based firm that strategically litigates cases to reduce the size of government, showed up in New Haven again last week, trying to find plaintiffs who could overturn the state’s primary desegregation initiative.

The attorneys held an information session at the main branch of New Haven’s Free Public Library to recruit parents who feel that racial bias motivated the closure of Cortlandt V.R. Creed Health & Sports Sciences High School this spring.

In the basement of the Ives Library, PLF’s team of largely white attorneys described the technicalities of civil-rights law, while across the table, a group of black moms fumed about the limited educational opportunities the state offers to minority children.

The event was hosted by the Connecticut Parents Union. Gwen Samuel, a former paraprofessional in New Haven’s Head Start program, said she put the event together with PLF’s attorneys to educate parents on the state’s desegregation program, which she said has resulted in some students being denied seats in magnet schools because of their race — an unintended consequence of efforts to increase those options.

PLF has already filed a case in Hartford based on those claims. The lead plaintiff, LaShawn Robinson, said Thursday that her son was first on the waiting list for his top-choice school, but the district chose to leave the desk empty rather skew toward a racial imbalance. PLF argues that violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.

(The plaintiffs in Sheff also say they oppose leaving desks empty. “The state currently places a cap on the number of magnet school seats, which has led to empty seats at magnet schools and too many students on waiting lists,” said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, who’s been fighting the case since the beginning. “The school lottery system is not the culprit, and the Robinson lawsuit is disingenuous and threatens to reverse the gains to address racial inequalities in Hartford. The parents and advocates behind Sheff oppose the empty seats and have repeatedly returned to the court to force the State to do more by expanding capacity at the magnet schools to meet student demand.”)

The attorneys are now looking to see if they can mount another challenge outside Hartford, and Creed, a inter-district magnet school since 2013, appears to be their primary target.

Connecticut largely built its inter-district magnet program in response to Sheff v. O’Neill, a landmark 1996 ruling by the state Supreme Court finding that racial isolation in Hartford-area schools prevented students from achieving a substantially equal educational opportunity. The state helped build new magnet schools like Creed to offer more opportunities for quality integration. But as in the case of Creed, that ended up meaning that sometimes white suburbanites got picked over black suburbanites to meet new racial quotas.

The lawyers who originally filed Sheff, from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Advocacy Center, said they agree the state still needs to do more. But they think the remedy should be toughening the state’s response to Sheff, rather than overturning the precedent it set.

The inter-district magnet schools receive extra money from the state in the hopes that their new buildings and expanded curriculum will attract white kids from the suburbs to sit alongside black and brown kids from host cities.

According to a law passed last year, Sheff’s benchmarks now apply statewide. All magnet schools across the state are now supposed to be at least 25 percent white, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American or some combination of those races by 2020.

In May, New Haven’s Board of Education voted to close Creed. Faced with a massive $19.4 million budget deficit, Superintendent Carol Birks recommended shuttering the school because the State Department of Education (SDE) had threatened it with financial penalties for not making any substantive progress toward racial diversity.

At the time of its closure, fewer than one-tenth of the students were white. The SDE said it planned to deduct $121,000 from its payment this year and de-magnetize the school entirely if its demographics continued to slide.

PLF started snooping around the school after the vote. One parent, Catherine Lawson, the mother of a biracial son, initially volunteered to be the face of a lawsuit, but she pulled out. (She did not return a phone call last week.) Altogether, Oliver Dunford, PLF’s attorney, said he’d nearly snagged 15 potential plaintiffs from Creed, but each one eventually changed their mind.

“We are interested in bringing a lawsuit against that law, the statewide expansion,” Joshua Thompson, one of PLF’s attorneys, said on Thursday. “If you know mothers or families that want to their kids to attend magnet schools but they’re on a waitlist or for whatever reason they can’t get in, have them contact us.”

Most of the women at the meeting were from other cities, like Hartford, Waterbury and Meriden; aside from two journalists, the only Elm City resident present was a former alder, Brenda Foskey-Hill.

But while the meeting didn’t yield any clients immediately, the parents talked about why they feel the inter-district magnet program hurts their children, who are stuck in neighborhood schools.

“There’s no pressure to integrate into the failing schools, right? And there’s no pressure to have a certain number of black children in the suburban schools, right?” asked Athena Wagner, a Waterbury mom. “So this whole thing is discriminatory, racially unbalanced to the core?”

“Absolutely,” said Thompson. He said that Sheff’s proponents often point to the fact that about half of the students in Hartford now attend a magnet school, but he argued that leaves the neighborhood schools more racially isolated than ever before.

Thompson said that PLF is hoping to bypass state precedent by bringing the case right to federal court. “Connecticut Supreme Court had their chance,” he said. “They’ve been litigating this for 30 years. It’s time to get a resolution under the [U.S.] Constitution.”

The organizations who originally challenged the constitutionality Hartford’s school system said they too are disappointed with the state’s slow progress toward integration. The Sheff attorneys admit that the state’s magnet program does not help kids who are stuck in neighborhood schools, but they say that’s why they’re continuing to fight in court.

“We’re still as angry as we were in 1989, when Sheff was filed, because we still fundamentally believe that the civil rights issue in all of these cases is the fact that black and Latino children continue to not have access to quality, integrated schools,” said Cara McClellan, a Skadden Fellow at NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. “That’s what we’ve been fighting for 22 years at this point,” since the Supreme Court’s decision, “ creating more access and more remedies through Sheff for segregated schools. We’re not giving up on that.”

Along with lawyers from the ACLU and the Center for Children’s Advocacy, McClellan will be returning to court over the next few months to defend Sheff’s original holding.

Before a federal judge, they’ll argue that PLF’s lawsuit challenging Sheff’s remedies should be handled in state court, since the case is rooted in the state constitution’s guarantees of a substantially equal educational opportunity, not federal rights.

And later this winter, before a state judge, they’ll continue the ongoing litigation in Sheff to ask the state to establish a long-term plan to set sustainable funding levels for the inter-district magnet schools in the cities and open choice slots in the suburbs, after repeated mid-year budget cuts to both programs.

They’ll also echo the same complaints from the moms who met in New Haven about how to reach students in neighborhood schools. “The fact that 50 percent of black and Latino students [are now enrolled in magnet schools] is great,” McClellan added. “It’s a huge improvement, but we’re not done.”

Other advocates said the most effective way to continue integrating schools is by expanding Sheff.

“We are not fighting to keep seats open or to close schools. We are fighting to require the state of Connecticut to make available to all students the opportunity to attend high-quality, integrated schools,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s racial justice program. “Closing schools and leaving seats empty is the result of policies that limit funding to schools or that fail to provide the resources necessary to create and maintain the highest quality schools for all students.”

PLF’s attorneys have said that they don’t want to touch Sheff’s core ruling that a segregated education violates students rights; they’ve said they just want to overturn the state’s way of remedies, its inter-district magnet school program and its racial isolation benchmarks.

McClellan said that argument doesn’t make sense to her. “It doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s no right without a remedy. The case has no meaning without actual integration impacting kids,” she said. “This is not a theoretical case; it practically impacts over 22,000 children. Sheff is nothing without a remedy that impacts kids.”