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Schools still segregated, 60 years later

Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education who’s never found a public school she likes, except the one in Wyoming that packs guns to fight off marauding bears, had some unpleasant things to say the other day about a Connecticut school described by a former student as “nothing more than adult day care.”

DeVos, whose advocacy of school choice, charter schools and magnet schools is surpassed only by her disdain for public schools, recalled a sad conversation with an East Hartford High graduate named Michael, who told her he had been socially promoted while learning little in an environment dominated by classroom chaos. 

Michael, later identified as a 2000 East Hartford High graduate, said he was constantly bullied, afraid to go to the boys room and had his classes frequently disrupted by problem kids.

This claim was hotly disputed by the teacher’s union, which organized an anti-DeVos rally to protest her collaborative effort with the unhappy Michael. Demonstrating teachers, parents and students painted a rosy picture of a strong school in which kids perform admirably and enjoyed a high graduation rate. The governor even came by to say higher graduation rates in East Hartford and other urban schools were reason to celebrate, not condemn.

But, as The Hartford Courant pointed out in its account of the demonstration, “East Hartford remains among the lowest performing districts in the state.” The SAT results achieved by its graduates indicate only 44 percent of the test takers met the language arts benchmark, and a horrendous 20 percent met the math target. The school is still functionally segregated, with 78 percent of its students black and Hispanic and 16 percent white. 

Michael’s life in East Hartford High may or may not have been as bad as he says, but DeVos is out of line using it to promote what appears to be her only solution — more school choice — for improving public education. Public schools are in trouble, but DeVos’ plan to all but abandon them, and those in them, for school choice in its various forms is hardly a viable solution and certainly not the only one. 

DeVos would allow parents to choose to have their children leave public schools for other venues, leaving the public schools, especially those in segregated cities, to children with parents who don’t make that choice — the troubled children of neglectful, troubled parents. She would transform schools providing free, public education for all into reform schools.

The basic problem, madam secretary, is still school segregation. Sixty-three years after the Supreme Court, in its Brown v Board of Education decision, declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, too many remain segregated. 

The schools in the larger cities are more segregated in 2017 than they were in 1954 — or in 1959 when the Court, dissatisfied with a lack of progress in school integration, ordered the states to proceed “with all deliberate speed” in integrating their schools. Meanwhile, states continue to defy that murky order.

The Malloy administration, under a court order to desegregate Hartford’s increasingly segregated schools, is trying to get around the problem by changing the definition of a segregated school from one that is 75 percent minority to more than 80 percent minority, thereby putting “deliberate speed” into reverse.

The order was issued in September, after the deficit-challenged legislature cut aid to most of the poorest communities while increasing assistance to some of the wealthiest towns. 

The judge also blasted the way Connecticut abuses its poorest minority students while socially promoting them and graduating too many kids who managed to avoid learning much for 12 years.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher ordered the Legislature to leave the poorest communities and its failing schools alone, and while the state is appealing his decision, the Legislature seems to be complying with the order in its current budget cutting.

But nothing is being done about poor teachers. A 2012 law that promised a more “robust measurement” of teacher effectiveness is yet to be implemented, and we are left with a teacher evaluation system that finds a third of the state’s teachers exemplary while nearly all the rest are merely proficient and just 1.7 percent are “developing” or “below standard.” And so Connecticut, unlike LakeWoebegone, has many students who are below average while nearly all the teachers are exemplary or proficient.

And let’s not forget the more-than-anecdotal evidence that our highly touted suburban schools may need some work. They seem to be turning out more and more graduates who can’t bear to hear ideas contrary to their own at privileged places like Yale and Middlebury. 

This isn’t new. The first editorial I ever wrote criticized University of Massachusetts students for booing Vice President Hubert Humphrey off the stage because of his support for the Vietnam War.

Nearly 50 years later, the great historian David McCullough has talked with a college student who told him she never knew the 13 original Colonies were all on the East Coast and another who asked him if he had interviewed both Harry Truman and John Adams in writing their biographies.

Even Betsy DeVos’ allegedly superior education experience left a gap or two. Soon after becoming secretary, she hailed black colleges as “real pioneers when it comes to school choices. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and great quality.”

Black colleges were, of course, founded when blacks couldn’t get into white colleges. They were as much about school choice, as one blogger put it, “as white/colored water fountains were about beverage choice.” 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.