Hartford, Connecticut is a modern day tale of two cities. The city has world-class magnet schools, where students have access to butterfly vivariums and some of the best education the state has to offer. Then there are failing neighborhood schools, where rust has changed the color of traffic signs and where many children’s hope for a brighter future have been extinguished.

Scores of children put their fate in the wheels of a lottery. Year after year, many students languish on waitlists, and are forced to attend schools that fail them. At the same time, magnet school classrooms have empty seats.

How can this be? Why are children stuck in failing neighborhood schools denied a brighter future for them and their families? 

Because of race. Hartford magnet schools are governed by an unfortunate racial quota that denies black and Hispanic children the same education opportunities as their white and Hispanic neighbors. Over 20 years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court, in Sheff v. O’Neill, held that racial isolation in Hartford public schools violated the Connecticut constitution.

For the last two decades and counting, Connecticut families have disagreed on how best to enforce that decision. Everyone applauds the creation of Hartford magnets schools, which have created access to a better education for many children. But not everyone supports the racial quotas, which create roadblocks to a better future for black and Hispanic children.

Those quotas require Hartford magnet schools to ensure that 25% of their students are white and Asian. Schools that fail to comply stand to lose state funding. As a result, schools have implemented drastic measures that discriminate against children on the basis of race. Schools leave seats empty when they predict that additional enrollees would upset this 25% rule. And lottery system for admissions intentionally favors suburbs with higher percentage of white and Asian applicants.

It doesn’t take a lawyer to see that this is wrong. And in February of last year, seven black and Hispanic families decided to do something about it. The families filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court seeking equal access to a better education.

The principles the families seek to vindicate are familiar. The government should not discriminate on the basis of race. And there is good caselaw to support their claims. The Supreme Court has invalidated racial quotas before — calling them “patently unconstitutional.” 

In March, the families obtained a victory in the trial court, which allowed them the opportunity to prove their constitutional claims.

No one doubts that the creation of Hartford magnet schools were a product of good intentions. But the quotas are yet another example of good intentions gone awry. Dr. King dreamed of a day in which his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We owe that to every child in Hartford today.

* * *

Wen Fa is an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, the libertarian public interest law firm that represents the plaintiffs in Robinson v. Wentzell.