State auditors found that a Hartford magnet school has been cherry-picking its students, bypassing the random lottery process that's supposed to determine who goes there.
The Hartford-area lottery has been lauded nationally as a model for how cities can desegregate public schools. But according to the state audit, Capital Preparatory Magnet School -- known for its winning sports teams and high test scores -- has been bypassing the lottery and hand-picking its students.
Over a third of the new students who enrolled at Capital Prep in 2013 and 2014 bypassed the lottery, the audit found. A few years ago, school founder Steve Perry had publicly denied picking students. Perry didn't respond to a request for comment. He is currently on a nationwide "Educational Truth Tour."
At least three other schools were also found to have bypassed the lottery to admit students, but in much smaller numbers than at Capital Prep.
Hartford has been under a court order to desegregate schools since the 1996 Sheff vs. O'Neill court ruling.
Martha Stone was one of the lead attorneys in that landmark case. She said what happened at Capital Prep could make parents skeptical about the lottery, and less likely to participate. And that could ultimately hurt Hartford's desegregation efforts.
"I am glad that there was an audit," she said, "and I think there needs to be tighter oversight so we're not seeing these kind of irregularities in the future."
Auditors reviewed plans at 18 of the 45 magnet schools in the Hartford area, and found that Capital Prep was the only one that included language in its operational plan that allowed school leaders to pick students. The State Department of Education is tasked with overseeing the magnet program, but auditors pointed out that operational plans are not reviewed.
The state gives money to magnet schools for each student enrolled, but officials found that this year, another 33 students at Capital Prep were enrolled outside the lottery system. The state isn't giving the school any money for those students.
State education officials said they will now review each school's lottery protocol going forward, and that it will impose financial penalties on schools that bypass the lottery.
According to Stone, students should rarely be allowed to be hand-picked.
"I think there would be very, very few exceptions," she said, adding that it should only apply for "humanitarian reasons," like, for example, a child in foster care who was admitted through the lottery, left the school for some reason, but then wanted to return.
The choice lottery for next school year ran on Friday, and the state is in the process of notifying parents if their children were picked.