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New Chapters Written in Saga of Conn. Desegregation Case

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While Hartford public schools student Milo Sheff spent last week getting ready for his senior prom, Connecticut lawmakers were crafting their answer to the school desegregation case that bears his name.

In the final hours of its 1997 session June 4, the legislature approved perhaps the most significant portion of its response to last year's state supreme court ruling in Sheff v. O'Neill. The high court declared that the extreme racial and ethnic isolation in and around the Hartford city schools denied students their constitutionally guaranteed rights to an education.

The Sheff ruling came as some legal experts were forecasting the twilight of sweeping civil rights litigation.

Last week's legislative package passed just two weeks shy of graduation day for the 18-year-old Mr. Sheff, who helped launch the suit in 1989. And early reaction from the plaintiffs' lawyers suggests the case he's been a part of since the 4th grade might not yet be over.

With a cost estimated at some $90 million over two years, the legislative remedy would expand opportunities for students to transfer between public school districts throughout Connecticut. The measure, which Republican Gov. John G. Rowland last week pledged to sign, also calls for enhancing the state's urban systems with magnet programs and charter schools.

Some observers hailed the plan last week as a significant first step. Others called it weak, but workable. The Sheff litigants said it fell far short of solving underlying equity problems.

"I will be recommending to the plaintiffs that they begin to prepare to return to court," said plaintiffs' lawyer John C. Brittain, also a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford.

Doing so, Mr. Brittain predicted, could prolong the legal battle another two years, by which point the case will have occupied half of Milo Sheff's life.

"I know the wheels of justice turn slowly in our country," said his mother, Elizabeth Horton Sheff.

After years in the spotlight, the young Mr. Sheff now lets his mother field the media's queries, she said, especially as he prepares for graduation from the Hartford district's Adult Education Program.

"Right now he wants to be just plain Milo," she said.

A Landmark Case

In April 1989, Mr. Sheff and his parents joined 16 other families in arguing that they were denied educational opportunities guaranteed by the state constitution. Although Mr. Sheff is black, his fellow plaintiffs include white and Hispanic students from urban and suburban families in the greater Hartford area.

About 95 percent of the students in the 24,000-pupil Hartford district are members of minority groups; most are Hispanic. The district has consistently ranked as one of the worst in the state in student performance.

But in April 1995, a state superior court judge ruled against the Sheff plaintiffs, arguing that the state had not contributed to segregation, but rather had attempted to reduce it.

In a 4-3 decision last summer, however, the state supreme court reversed the ruling. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug. 7, 1996.)

Since the supreme court decision, consensus built in the legislature that any remedy should include greater opportunities for minority students to transfer out of the Hartford schools, along with incentives for suburban students to move into the district. ("Desegregation Panel Offers 15 Proposals to Conn. Legislators," Jan. 29, 1997.)

The bill that finally met approval last week includes parts of both elements.

Specifically, the plan offers grants of up to $50,000 to design--and $100,000 to administer--new interdistrict transfer programs.

The programs would allow up to 1,000 students to move in or out of the Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven districts in the 1998-99 school year.

Although the lawsuit dealt with Hartford, the proposed remedies have also focused on the two other urban districts, which share similar concerns. The school choice program would then expand to the entire state the year after.

As an incentive to accept transfers, some funds would follow students.

Lawmakers voted to give receiving districts up to $2,000 for each out-of-district student they accept, plus up to another $1,000 to cover transportation costs.

Passed hours before the legislature finished debating the state's general budget, the public-school-choice legislation included few overall cost estimates, instead calling for new programs and expansions "within available appropriations."

The legislation also pledges state aid for the Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven systems to establish "lighthouse schools" with specialized curricula designed to attract students from more than one district.

"Within three years from now, we'll have a full-fledged, statewide interdistrict program," said Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, the Democrat who chairs the joint education committee.

Mr. Gaffey said the overall remedy includes two separately passed bills aimed at improving the quality of education in Hartford: a measure enhancing early-childhood and preschool programs in urban areas, and the state takeover of the Hartford system. ("Conn. Bill To Seize Hartford Schools Passes," April 23, 1997.)

Will It Integrate?

Other lawmakers, however, offered more qualified support.

Although she approved the school choice plan, Democratic Rep. Edna Garcia said the legislation lacks clear goals and deadlines.

Instead, at the prodding of a group of minority lawmakers, the measure instructs the state board of education to assess disparities among Connecticut's schools and recommend a five-year plan for reducing them.

"It doesn't tell anyone: 'You have to integrate all your schools,'" Ms. Garcia said.

Criticism by the plaintiffs' lawyers went even further.

"All this requires the board to do is report to the legislature and the governor on a plan," Mr. Brittain said.

Throughout the legislative process, those representing the plaintiffs have complained that without more specific goals, proposed remedies could expand school choice opportunities and give Hartford more resources but still not integrate the schools.

"We've consistently said 'a quality, integrated education,'" said Marianne Lado of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. "You can't trade one for the other."

Whether the plaintiffs lodge another legal challenge, most observers agree Mr. Sheff could be well on his way toward graduating from his next educational destination--Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic--before the racial makeup of the Hartford schools changes substantially.

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