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Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford

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Milo Sheff starts his senior year next month, on track to graduate from the Hartford, Conn., schools well before the desegregation case filed in his name begins to change their racial makeup.

But the desegregation push that languished in courts since Mr. Sheff began 4th grade got its biggest endorsement last month.

A divided Connecticut Supreme Court ordered state officials to begin the desegregation of the Hartford schools, where 95 percent of the city's 25,000 students are black or Hispanic.

In deciding the case known as Sheff v. O'Neill, the court ruled 4-3 that the state is responsible for reducing racial imbalance in its schools, regardless of what led the schools to become segregated. A lower court had absolved the state of responsibility in a ruling last year.

After the release of the high court's July 9 decision, Gov. John G. Rowland, state education officials, and several lawmakers announced plans to name a task force charged with recommending a remedy by January.

The court's decision represents the first time in nearly 20 years a state supreme court has ruled against de facto segregation--racial isolation caused unintentionally by such factors as town boundaries and housing trends.

The decision could revive efforts elsewhere to remedy the persistent racial segregation that exists between many urban schools and their suburban counterparts.

Although the decision focused on some unusual provisions in the Connecticut constitution, legal experts said its influence will likely spill over the state's borders.

"I would be surprised if there weren't at least a half dozen other filings," said David J. Armor, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who testified in the case as an expert witness for state.

The Sheff decision also comes as the Minnesota Supreme Court considers a similar case.

"It's not just important for what's happening in Hartford," said Gary Orfield, a Harvard University desegregation expert who testified for the plaintiffs. "It's important for the discussion that's not happening in the country."

Beyond Discrimination

Mr. Sheff, who is black, was a student at Annie Fisher Elementary School in 1989 when his parents joined the families of several Hartford-area black, white, and Latino students in suing the state. The lawsuit contested the extreme differences in racial enrollments between the Hartford school district and surrounding suburban districts.

State funding formulas give Hartford's schools a relatively high proportion of per-pupil state aid.

But the plaintiffs argued that the city students were denied equal educational opportunities, as shown by the out-of-date study materials often used there and by their poor performance on statewide tests.

The state argued that its officials had not caused the segregation in the Hartford area, but had worked to reduce it.

A trial court judge sided with the state in an April 1995 ruling. (See "Judge Decrees Conn. Is Not Liable for Bias," April 19, 1996.)

But last month, the state's highest court sided with the plaintiffs, agreeing that the state constitution requires Connecticut officials to do more to remedy the situation.

The justices based their ruling in part on the finding that a 1909 state law making school district lines contiguous with town boundaries is the biggest factor perpetuating the racial imbalances.

Much of the court's reasoning hinged on a single word in the Connecticut constitution: segregation. The document prohibits not just discriminatory practices, but also segregation, regardless of the cause, the justices concluded.

Because the case dealt with state constitutional issues, the state cannot appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

'Long on Rhetoric'

While the plaintiffs hailed the ruling, some state officials were quick to criticize the court's reasoning.

"It was a very unjust ruling," said state Sen. Judith G. Freedman, a Republican who co-chairs the legislature's joint education committee. "The court was trying to set social policy."

In a dissent that ran longer than the majority opinion, three of the court's seven justices similarly criticized the ruling as "long on rhetoric and short on reasoning."

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal accused the court's majority of "cobbling together" a new right, creatively combining the constitution's guarantees for public education and equal protection.

Still, he said he accepted the court's order to help plan a remedy.

"We really need to leave behind the legal dispute in the courtroom and go ahead with the extraordinary opportunity we face in the classroom," Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview.

Phones Light Up

In the days following the decision, Sen. Freedman said her office phones lit up with calls from constituents anxious to know what the decision will mean to suburban school districts. Though the court did not prescribe a specific remedy, some feared students would be reassigned to different schools.

"The assurance I give them is to say when school opens in September, there will be no changes because the legislature won't meet until January," said Ms. Freedman, who represents a suburban Hartford district. With the November elections approaching, it's unlikely lawmakers will call a special session this fall.

Although the supreme court did not set a deadline for reaching a remedy, it ordered state officials to make the issue a top priority. But Ms. Freedman complained the justices gave "no inkling as to where they thought we should go."

Mr. Armor, the expert witness for the defense, said the state's options are limited.

"They don't have much choice but to do reassignment, abolish town boundaries, create a metropolitan system, or change the constitution," he said.

But the state could also expand voluntary programs that allow minority students to transfer from the city schools, Mr. Orfield, the plaintiffs' witness, suggested.

The state might also create new magnet school programs to draw in white students from the suburbs.

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