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Published in Print: January 29, 2003, as Deal Announced to Desegregate Hartford Schools

Deal Announced to Desegregate Hartford Schools

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For the first time in 14 years of litigation, the two sides in Connecticut's closely watched school desegregation case have agreed on a plan to achieve greater racial and ethnic integration in the schools in and around Hartford.

The agreement announced last week by Gov. John G. Rowland and the plaintiffs in the case, known as Sheff v. O'Neill, calls for a four-year, $45 million expansion of the state's school integration efforts. Most of the money would pay for voluntary programs that offer students the chance to attend schools outside their local communities.

The accord marks a major breakthrough in a battle that has shaped the course of recent education policy in Connecticut. The case also has stood out nationally as a bold attempt to use the courts to integrate schools long after most such drives have waned.

Since winning a 1996 desegregation order from the Connecticut Supreme Court, the plaintiffs have argued that state policymakers have failed to adequately carry out the mandate.

"This signals a new stage in the resolution of this issue in Connecticut," Gov. Rowland, a Republican, said of the new plan last week. He added that the out-of-court agreement could "serve as a model for other states struggling with the issues of student isolation."

But even if the deal wins still-needed approval from the legislature and the state courts, legal observers caution against viewing the plan as the last chapter in the Sheff case. Indeed, the plaintiffs last week characterized the plan— which is far more modest than what they initially demanded—as a first step.

At the end of four years, they still could return to court if they were unsatisfied that enough progress had been made.

"This is not going to be the end of the need for dealing with the problem of racial isolation in Connecticut schools," said Philip Tegeler, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs on behalf of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. "At this point in time, we're looking at what we can achieve pragmatically in the next four years."

New Promises

Filed in 1989 by a group of black, Hispanic, and white students in the Hartford area, the Sheff lawsuit argued that the extreme racial and ethnic isolation in the city's schools violated the state constitution's ban on segregation in public education.

The state supreme court agreed, 4-3, in its 1996 decision that the state was liable for correcting the problem of such isolation, even if it didn't intentionally cause it. But the court also left to state policymakers the job of crafting a remedy. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug. 7, 1996.)

Since then, Connecticut has pursued a strategy of encouraging the movement of city students to the suburbs, and vice versa. The Hartford area now has 11 magnet schools with special themes aimed at attracting students from throughout the region. Also, about 800 students take part in a separate program that lets them attend schools outside their own districts.

Although initially arguing for the mandatory reassignment of students—by such measures as redrawing attendance zones—the plaintiffs came to accept the state's voluntary approach. Still, they have argued that the state hasn't put enough money into its efforts to significantly change the racial balance in schools.

As was true when the litigation began, more than 90 percent of the Hartford district's 24,500 students are members of minority groups. In recent years, the plaintiffs also have noted that many of the programs meant to address the court order have had waiting lists, suggesting that more students would take part if the offerings were expanded.

Brokered over months of talks, last week's agreement seeks to settle the issue without having the judge who has presided over the case prescribe her own solution. Last year, state Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma heard arguments from the plaintiffs—for the second time since the state supreme court ruling—that the courts needed to prod the state to do more.

"The judge at the end of the hearings basically suggested that we talk about a settlement," said Dennis Parker, another lawyer for the plaintiffs who works for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "That suggested that she wasn't going to give either of us what we wanted."

What the plaintiffs did get in the agreement is a pledge that the state will pay for the opening of two more magnet schools in the Hartford area in each of the next four years. The deal also would double, to 1,600, the number of students participating in the state's interdistrict-transfer program. Also promised is additional money for initiatives that bring together students from diverse backgrounds through after-school programs and similar efforts.

Especially critical for the plaintiffs was the inclusion in the agreement of specific goals. Within four years, the proposed plan says, at least 30 percent of minority students from Hartford will take part in one of the state's school integration programs, such as by attending a magnet school. Now, that figure is 10 percent.

Scaled-Down Plan

"I think what you get here is progress toward a set of integration goals. I don't think you get an integrated system," said Andrew Lachman, the executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change, which supports school improvement but was not involved in the lawsuit. "I think it's positive, as opposed to spending a lifetime in court."

Few observers or even the plaintiffs themselves believed the plaintiffs could have expected more at this point. Connecticut lawmakers are struggling to close a two-year, $2 billion hole in the state budget. Two of the supreme court judges who approved the original desegregation ruling have retired. And improved student performance in Hartford of late has softened its image as district in need of drastic changes.

"There is frustration, yes," Mr. Parker said. "This is scaled down from what our original expectations were. Maybe in four years, we can put together the kind of comprehensive remedy we were looking for all along."

In the meantime, school desegregation in Connecticut appears likely to be the sole concern of education officials, and not the courts. Theodore S. Sergi, the state commissioner of education, said last week that the proposed compromise was a tall order. The challenge, he said, is "making sure the programs in Hartford are sufficiently attractive, different, and safe for suburban kids to want to go there, and for Hartford kids to say, 'They look better than my regular programs.' "

"The implementation of this," he said, "is actually harder than the agreement itself."

Vol. 22, Issue 20, Pages 1,20

Web Resources
  • This December 1997 article from the Yale Political Quarterly discusses the ruling and background of Sheff v. O'Neill.
  • Connecticut KidsLink, a Connecticut children's advocacy organization, provides links and resources about the Sheff case. Includes possible remedies, links to the case, the law, and to the Connecticut Supreme Court decision.
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