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Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Court Sides With Conn. in Latest Sheff Ruling

Court Sides With Conn. in Latest Sheff Ruling

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A decade after they first filed Connecticut's closely watched school desegregation lawsuit, the plaintiffs in the case known as Sheff v. O'Neill have been told to give it more time.

In a decision that offered them few concessions, state Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma last week ruled that the Sheff plaintiffs had failed to show the inadequacy of state efforts to reduce the racial and ethnic isolation that persists around its cities' schools.

Instead, the trial court judge said, state officials acted quickly and prudently after the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1996 ordered the governor and legislature to "put the search for appropriate remedial measures at the top of their respective agendas."

"The state has acted expeditiously and in good faith," Judge Aurigemma wrote in her ruling. "It has devised a comprehensive, interrelated, well-funded set of programs and legislation designed to improve education for all children, with a special emphasis on urban children, while promoting diverse educational environments."

A Voluntary Course

Connecticut's desegregation efforts first entered the courts in 1989, when the Sheff lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of black, white, and Latino students from the Hartford area. Within the capital city's school system, more than 90 percent of students were members of minority groups.

Despite receiving substantial state aid compared with its suburban neighbors, Hartford had long been plagued by poor student performance, and, the plaintiffs argued in their lawsuit, its plight would not improve until its schools became integrated. Though the state supreme court agreed in July 1996, the justices left it to state policymakers to design a remedy.

Judge Aurigemma devoted much of her 33-page ruling last week to a recounting of recent state actions aimed at improving education programs in urban areas and at creating more opportunities for students from different racial and ethnic groups to interact. ("New Chapters Written in Saga of Conn. Desegregation Case," June 11, 1997.)

Among them are: money for new charter schools and interdistrict magnet schools designed to reduce segregation; a statewide public-school-choice program that pays districts to accept students from one another; cooperative programs, such as joint field trips, that encourage more exposure to students from diverse backgrounds; and urban preschool initiatives to help ensure that more city children begin school ready to learn.

Judge Aurigemma praised the state for implementing such voluntary measures instead of trying to integrate districts by mandating the reassignment of students. "The best way to achieve popular support," she wrote, "is not to impose a judicially mandated remedial plan, but to encourage Connecticut's populace as a whole."

An 'Ominous Task'

Arguing that they're more concerned with results than with means, the Sheff plaintiffs have never demanded specific remedies, such as mandatory reassignment. But they have repeatedly called for clear goals and timetables for reducing school segregation, which has, they point out, gotten worse in Connecticut since 1996.

But Judge Aurigemma said the state's remedy hadn't been given sufficient time to show results, and she essentially scolded the plaintiffs' decision to go back to court last March. "The plaintiffs did not even wait until the end of that first school year before determining that the state's actions were inadequate," she wrote.

Protesting that the judge misunderstood their position, the plaintiffs were weighing their options late last week.

"Our complaint about the state response was not that it's voluntary, but that it doesn't promise to be effective," said Dennis Parker, a lawyer with the New York City-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups representing the Connecticut plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs were likely to decide this week, Mr. Parker said, whether to appeal the decision, to challenge the state's response again at the trial court level at a later time, or to take other action. "The question is, how long do you have to sit and let things get worse before you take some action?" he said.

Though clearly a blow to the plaintiffs, the ruling doesn't let the state off the hook, argued Rep. Cameron C. Staples, a Democrat who co-chairs the state's joint education committee.

"I don't take this in any way as a relief from the burden that we have of ultimately proving that our approach has had results," he said. "And that's a pretty ominous task."

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 14

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