If you need proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, look no further than Hartford, Connecticut. To address a broken, racially-divided school system where white children mostly attended wealthy suburban schools and black children mostly attended poor neighborhood schools, Hartford embarked on an ambitious program to increase integration by building world-class magnet schools. The idea was to attract white suburban students to the city magnet schools while offering local black students a massive upgrade in the quality of their educational opportunities.

And amazingly, Hartford pulled it off. Almost.

Hartford does indeed now operate a network of exceptional magnet schools, and the school district’s largely black and Hispanic student population is eager to attend them. But white suburban students, happy with their perfectly good suburban schools, have not chosen to make the longer commute to Hartford magnet schools.

Which shouldn’t be a problem. If suburban students don’t want to transfer to a Hartford magnet school, that should mean more seats for Hartford students. But remember, we’re on the road to hell.

The catch is a Connecticut state law that requires magnet schools to limit black and Hispanic enrollment to 75% of the student body, reserving the remaining 25% for white and Asian-American students. Schools that can’t meet those proportions face fines or can be forced to close—as happened to Hartford’s Cortlandt V.R. Creed High School, which shut its doors in 2018 because it enrolled too many black and Hispanic students.

Let that sink in for a moment: a successful, beloved high school where students felt safe and supported was shut down. Not because it was bad at educating students. Because its students had the wrong skin color. Rather than risk Creed High School’s fate, schools left seats empty while sticking black and Hispanic students on a waitlist, often for years.

This is intolerable. The Equal Protection Clause promises equal treatment before the law as individuals, not as members of a racial group. Pacific Legal Foundation filed two lawsuits on behalf of Connecticut parents who want to shut down their state’s racist, unconstitutional policy. Thanks to PLF’s challenge, the racial quota can no longer be applied to magnet schools in Hartford, and the fight continues to extend that victory to all magnet schools statewide.

Hidden Quotas

In the post-Brown v. Board era, most school districts are not as brazen as Connecticut in using outright racial quotas to fill their specialized schools. But just because an admissions policy isn’t called a quota doesn’t mean a quota doesn’t exist.

From coast to coast, school districts are learning to implement hidden quotas—policies that sound race-neutral but are designed to achieve a specific racial balance. It is a troubling fact that few black and Hispanic students attend the nation’s top specialized public schools, which suggests these students lack access to resources necessary to successfully compete for admission. Papering over the problem with hidden racial quotas instead of addressing the root causes helps no one.

The trend is spreading, from New York City to Boston to metropolitan DC. Most recently, San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi, ended its magnet program because it could not lawfully mandate its school board’s preferred racial balance. Yes, you heard that right: the school board decided that if its racial target couldn’t be met, then no student should have access to an advanced education.

Despite the lessons of Hartford, school districts are still too focused on the short-term gains of jumping on the equity bandwagon to realize the long-term harm these policies do to their students. And while last century it was black students who were barred from certain schools because of their race, today it is Asian-American students who are excluded by policy. Though the discussion is often phrased in terms of how a specialized public school should “reflect the community it’s located in” or “look more like our school district as a whole,” make no mistake—that’s code for racial balancing.

New York City has led the way in hiding racial quotas in plain sight. New York City’s three largest Specialized High Schools are all majority Asian-American. Many of these students are first- or second-generation Americans from working-class immigrant families. Administrators hoped to reduce the number of Asian-American students earning spots in the city’s elite Specialized High Schools by adopting racially-motivated but race-neutral admissions policies, ostensibly to increase numbers of black and Hispanic students. Rather than mandate that only a certain percentage of Asian-American students could attend each school, the City manipulated a feeder program so that Asian-American students—and only Asian-American students—now face much steeper competition to earn a spot at a Specialized High School.

Other school districts took notice. In Montgomery County, Maryland, district officials took advantage of the fact that many Asian-American students live in the same neighborhoods and attend the same schools to manipulate the admissions process for its highly-regarded magnet middle schools. As a result, the Asian-American student enrollment was cut nearly in half. Using geography as an admissions factor may seem race-neutral, but when used as a proxy for race, it becomes a hidden quota that determines what school a child can attend based on the color of her skin. The motive behind all this manipulation? The Board of Education wanted the district’s magnet middle schools to be “more reflective” of the student population. More reflective means classifying students by race to ensure that students belonging to each group occupy a certain percentage of seats at the school.

At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, the admissions policy was overhauled in a way likely to drastically reduce the number of Asian-American students earning spots in the highly competitive school. Capitalizing on the fact that many Asian-American students attend the same handful of middle schools, the school district placed a cap on how many students each middle school could send to Thomas Jefferson and eliminated the race-blind admissions test. Now Asian-American students must compete primarily against themselves for the few spots allocated to their middle schools, instead of being judged on their skills and abilities across the entire school district.

Next on the horizon are Boston’s Exam Schools, which are considering changing their admissions policies because district officials are unhappy with the schools’ racial makeup. It’s a safe bet that if they do, it will be accomplished with hidden quotas.

Judicial Uncertainty

This demographic string-pulling at America’s specialized public schools will continue until the Supreme Court puts a stop to it.

Race-based laws must pass the highest level of judicial scrutiny—as they should. Allowing the government to provide services or benefits based on race is a dangerous thing, and courts must always evaluate such laws very carefully. To pass this extremely high bar, the government must prove that it has an exceptionally good reason—called a compelling interest, in legal-speak. There are only two interests compelling enough under prevailing Supreme Court precedent to justify race-based policies: to remedy the present effects of past discriminatory laws, and to provide diversity in higher education.

In school districts that were never segregated or are now unitary, the first compelling interest is off the table. As for a compelling interest in diversity, past judicial decisions have applied it only to colleges and universities. So, what about K-12 education?

Fourteen years ago, the Supreme Court created confusion when it issued a fractured, no-majority opinion on whether diversity was a compelling interest in K-12 education. It hasn’t clarified the issue since.

As a result, school districts like to argue that a general interest in diversity is a good enough reason to block kids from schools because of their skin color. But higher education institutions have little in common with public K-12 schools, and the reasons why diversity might be a compelling interest at a university (like educational autonomy and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with a university environment) don’t exist in the elementary and high school context. According to the Supreme Court, universities occupy “a special niche in our constitutional tradition,” and there’s no room in that niche for K-12 schools. A general interest in diversity does not outweigh the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection regardless of skin color. Each student is an individual, with individual needs, talents, goals, and interests. The Equal Protection Clause promises that public schoolchildren, like all Americans, will be treated as individuals, not as members of a racial group they didn’t choose and can’t change. Now it’s time for the Supreme Court to make clear that a general interest in diversity can never justify policies that determine which school a child can attend based on her race. Together with parents in Connecticut, NYC, Maryland, and Virginia, PLF is fighting to defend the Equal Protection Clause’s promise of equality before the law. With their children’s futures on the line, these parents won’t stop until the Supreme Court secures that promise. Neither will we.