Pursuing a Vision of Equality in Conn. Court

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The central office of the Hartford public schools sits in a north-end neighborhood some people are afraid to visit. It is surrounded by boarded-up buildings, a soup kitchen, and a liquor store with grating on its windows.

Jeffrey L. Forman, the senior assistant to the district's superintendent, pulls his car out of the building's crude dirt parking lot and gives a visitor a tour of a city that shows that many other neighborhoods look much the same way.

Then, heading downtown, he points to polished high-rise office buildings where, mainly, suburban dwellers work.

The city's children, being disproportionately poor and overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, he said, can hope to get hourly clerical jobs, at best, in these buildings.

"I would like,'' Mr. Forman said, "to walk into an office and see a former poor minority kid as the boss, and the kids from the suburbs as data-entry workers.''

A group of civil-rights advocates, with Mr. Forman's blessing, is seeking to help bring about just such a vision by forcing what they see as the necessary changes in the city's schools.

In an unusual lawsuit filed in 1989, which is expected to be argued this fall in the Connecticut Superior Court, the civil-rights advocates charge that racial, ethnic, and economic segregation between the schools of Hartford and its suburbs violates poor and minority children's rights to a "minimally adequate education.''

In language similar to that used in school-finance lawsuits, the civil-rights advocates seek to compel Connecticut--per capita, the wealthiest state in the nation--to provide the city's children with educational opportunities comparable to those given to suburban children.

The case is unusual in that it is being pursued in state court, rather than in the federal courts where school-desegregation cases traditionally have been fought.

And the plaintiffs, citing Connecticut's constitution, are putting forward an argument largely rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court long ago: that the state has the responsibility to remedy segregation that its actions did not necessarily cause.

State officials, who have twice failed to block the case from coming to trial, contend that they should not be held responsible for the segregation that now exists. They also note that they have taken steps, such as promoting voluntary interdistrict cooperation, to bring schools into racial balance.

But the officials acknowledge that the outcome of the case could have major ramifications beyond the schools here.

"The court stands at the crossroads in this case,'' John R. Whelan, the assistant attorney general, said in a memorandum submitted to the superior court.

"The problems that lie at the heart of this lawsuit--poverty, disparate resources, urban flight and decay--are not limited to the field of education,'' Mr. Whelan said, "or to the city of Hartford.''

'The Ax Is Going To Fall'

Although few state officials have spoken publicly about the case, Sheff v. O'Neill, while it is in the courts, lawyers for the plaintiffs took heart from Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.'s first comments on the subject. The lawsuit was filed during the term of his predecessor, William A. O'Neill.

In remarks the plaintiffs interpreted as evidence that he is worried about how the state would fare in the Hartford case, Governor Weicker warned in late March that Connecticut must act quickly to end racial segregation in its schools.

Otherwise, he said, the state stood a good chance of losing its court case and having to comply with a court order.

"If we sit on our duff,'' Mr. Weicker told local reporters, "the ax is going to fall, and then, believe me, nobody will like the solution, either in terms of what happens to the children or the price that we have to pay as taxpayers.''

Aides later insisted that the Governor had not presumed the state would lose its case. They acknowledged, though, that Mr. Weicker's proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes little new money to promote voluntary school-integration programs.

"Issues of racial isolation have been of concern to him going back through his entire career,'' Avice A. Meehan, the Governor's press secretary, said last week of Mr. Weicker.

"But,'' Ms. Meehan said, "he wants to address it on a voluntary basis.''

Ms. Meehan said Governor Weicker believes that the state should begin tackling the issue of racial isolation in schools, but that, "at this point, the state lacks the financial resources to take major steps.''

'A Severe Disadvantage'

In part, the plaintiffs' optimism stems from the state's own data, which they say show clear proof of segregation by race, income, and education.

"If we were trying this case before a panel of educators, the evidence is virtually irrefutable in terms of the racial, economic, and educational disparities,'' asserted John C. Brittain, a law professor at the University of Connecticut and the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Hartford's school-age population, the plaintiffs note, is about 45 percent black and 45 percent Hispanic. The state as a whole, by contrast, has a school-age population that is about 12 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic, and 16 of 21 districts near Hartford are less than 10 percent minority.

About 51 percent of Hartford's schoolchildren come from families below the federal government's official poverty line, compared with 10 percent of all children in the state, the suit notes.

"This case is more than a racial-difference case,'' said Martha Stone, who is representing the plaintiffs as a lawyer from the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. "This case is about poverty concentration.''

The lawsuit also alleges that the economic and racial segregation has resulted in educational disadvantage for Hartford schoolchildren.

On average, the suit states, pupils in the city score significantly below their peers in the suburbs on the state's standardized tests, with 57 percent of 8th graders falling below the remedial levels on mathematics and reading tests. They also are far more likely to drop out or, if they graduate, to fail to enter college or to get a job.

"Because the Hartford public schools have an extraordinary proportion of at-risk students among their student populations,'' the suit states, "they operate at a severe educational disadvantage in addressing the needs of all students--not only those who are at risk, but those who are not.''

Mr. Forman, the Hartford official, maintained in a recent interview that the segregation of Hartford schools "is a poverty issue more than an issue of race.''

Most suburban residents would welcome a well-to-do black family next door, he said, but many suburbs have fiercely resisted the placement of low- or moderate-income housing projects in their neighborhoods.

He also noted that the district has few resources to spend to help its at-risk students. A disproportionate amount of the district's budget must be spent on such non-instructional personnel as social workers and security guards, Mr. Forman said.

Uncharted Legal Territory

In asking the state of Connecticut to address the racial, ethnic, economic, and educational disparities among districts, however, the plaintiffs have entered uncharted legal territory, lawyers concede.

The U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Brittain said, effectively closed its doors to cases such as Sheff in 1974, when it overturned a city-suburban desegregation order addressing de facto segregation between schools in Detroit and its suburbs.

But the Connecticut constitution, the lawyers for the plaintiffs assert, gives them far more legal ammunition.

That document not only guarantees all residents equal rights and equal protection, they point out, it also requires that the state shall provide a free public and secondary education.

Taken together, the lawyers for the plaintiffs argue, these provisions, and related state statutes, should be interpreted by the state court as creating a fundamental right to "an equal educational opportunity'' and "a minimally adequate education.''

The state government has deprived many of its children of such rights, the lawyers allege, "by tolerating school districts sharply divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines.''

Since 1965, the suit alleges, the state has offered little response as various consultants and state and federal commissions have documented the existence of separate and unequal school districts throughout the state and have blamed the forces of government for creating residential segregation in the Hartford region.

In 1989, the suit notes, a report from the state department of education described an "alarming degree of isolation'' of poor and minority students in Hartford.

But the state said it would pursue only "voluntary and incremental'' change, a response that prompted the civil-rights advocates to file the lawsuit.

Another report issued by the Governor's Commission on Quality and Integrated Education in 1990 called for the state to address racial isolation by funding two-way interdistrict transfers and regional magnet schools, among other remedies. But little new state money has been allocated for such efforts, the lawyers for the plaintiffs asserted in a recent interview.

In a move seen by local education officials as helping to preserve a spirit of cooperation between Hartford and its suburbs, the suit does not propose any specific--and potentially controversial--remedy.

Instead, it attempts only to expose flaws in the system to force the state to wrestle with a solution.

Nevertheless, the lawyers point out, such a remedy would be a radical challenge to New England's hallowed tradition of local school control in a state called "the land of steady habits.''

'Social Engineering'

Responding to the lawsuit, state officials twice attempted to block the case from going to trial by seeking summary judgments against the plaintiffs in state superior court. Both attempts were rejected, however, the most recent one in February.

In its arguments, the state asserted that it is not responsible for disparities between schools in Hartford and its suburbs because the disparities are not the product of state actions.

Moreover, the state maintained, it has done all it is constitutionally obliged to do for Hartford schools, and claimed that no act or plan of the state could possibly "sufficiently'' address the complex conditions about which the plaintiffs complain.

"No state in the country has gone as far as Connecticut in outlawing schools which are racially imbalanced in comparison to the district as a whole,'' the state's lawyers argued in their memorandum.

The state, they noted, has adopted and sought to enforce a law requiring that the racial composition of all schools within a given school district be within 25 percentage points of the composition of the district as a whole.

And the general assembly, the memorandum said, has shown its commitment to promoting diversity by passing the intradistrict racial-balance law. Under that law, the state department of education is required to train teachers in intergroup relations and to provide $2.5 million for programs that encourage districts with diverse populations to cooperate with each other to bring their students together.

The legislature, not the courts, should continue to have the role of addressing such complex social and economic issues as disparities in schools, the state lawyers maintained.

"If the state can be held to have violated the constitution, not by its actions, but by its inability to halt and to reverse massive social and economic trends,'' Mr. Whelan, the assistant attorney general, warned, "then the courts will find themselves permanently engaged in social engineering and policymaking in an effort to remedy the myriad socioeconomic problems affecting people in this state.''

Voluntary Efforts

In addition to the state's voluntary programs, Hartford and its surrounding districts have also cooperated on integration efforts, noted John J. Allison Jr., who has coordinated many of the voluntary efforts as the executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council. The council is a regional agency that works on behalf of Hartford and 35 nearby districts.

"I do not see Hartford as pitted against the other districts,'' he said. "In fact, I see Hartford and other districts looking for voluntary solutions because they think they can do a better job that way.''

For more than two decades, Mr. Allison noted, Project Concern, funded by the districts and the state, has enabled Hartford students to enroll in suburban schools.

More recently, the districts in the council established the Greater Hartford Academy of the Performing Arts, a part-day magnet program for children throughout the region.

But critics contend that such efforts are inadequate to quell the segregation that divides the inner city from the suburbs. Project Concern, they note, now involves just 700 children, and the performing-arts academy is in danger of closing next year for lack of funds.

Mr. Allison, who said he distrusts the ability of courts to impose educationally sound desegregation remedies, nonetheless said he would welcome a victory by the plaintiffs in the Sheff case, if it would result in an infusion of more state funds into their efforts.

"Right now, there is not a political will to fund education, let alone the redressing of imbalance,'' Mr. Allison complained.

'Double Standard'

In rejecting the state's attempts to block the lawsuit, Superior Court Judge Harry Hammer ruled that the state may be held responsible for school segregation.

State and local authorities are so involved in the control of their schools, he ruled in February, that any school segregation that exists could be considered "state action'' under the state constitution's equal-protection clause.

"Public schools are creatures of the state,'' Judge Hammer wrote.

Therefore, he said, the question of whether an unconstitutional situation in schools is the result of state action or inaction should be irrelevant in determining the state's obligations.

In hearings on the state's motion, Judge Hammer had remarked that the state appears, in the Sheff case, to be in the awkward position of countering many of the same arguments that it had posed separately, in attempting to force an end to de facto segregation within the urban district of Waterbury.

Lawyers for the state have asserted that the state's racial-balance law applies only to individual school districts, and is irrelevant to allegations of de facto segregation involving separate districts.

But Guy N. DiBiasio, the superintendent of Waterbury Public Schools, maintained in a recent interview that the state has made him the victim of a double standard.

Waterbury, Mr. DiBiasio said, "is probably the most integrated city in Connecticut,'' with a 54 percent minority, 46 percent white enrollment.

Because Waterbury is an individual district, however, it has been required to comply with the state's racial-balance law and to maintain minority populations in each of its schools that are within 25 percent of the district average. After the state found in 1984 that four Waterbury schools had strayed from the target range, a state court ordered the district to maintain minority enrollments within 15 percent of the district average.

"Right now,'' Mr. DiBiasio said, "you could have kids living on four corners where streets intersect all going to different schools.''

The district, in its attempt to racially balance its schools, has spent millions of dollars on busing and magnet programs, only to become mired in various controversies.

The board tried, for example, to comply with the state's orders by building a new school in its heavily Hispanic south end to replace the Maloney School, which was racially imbalanced and more than a century old.

The city's board of aldermen refused to pay for the construction of a new school near Maloney, however.

Parents, meanwhile, have fought to block the closing of their old neighborhood school, despite the fact that the building is in such disrepair that children must sit away from some windows on windy days to avoid being struck by dislodged glass.

In addition, the Waterbury board also drew fire over a voluntary busing and magnet-school plan.

Although the plan was designed to bring about racial balance while giving parents maximum access to neighborhood schools, some parents charged that it placed a disproportionate burden on minority students.

The district last month succeeded in getting a revised integration plan approved by the state board of education, and state representatives from Waterbury have proposed state legislation that would provide $11 million for a new school in the south end.

In Court and in the Streets

Partly in response to such controversies, participants in the Hartford lawsuit have been making speeches urging a political, as well as a legal, victory.

"We need to look at winning the lawsuit in the court and winning the movement in the streets in order to be successful,'' said Elizabeth H. Sheff, a black lay minister whose son, Milo, was named as the lead plaintiff in the case.

Eugene E. Leach, a white professor of history and American studies at Trinity College, whose children attend suburban schools, said he sees himself as part of a continuation of the civil-rights movement of the 1960's as he tries to convince people of the value of educating children in an integrated setting.

Mr. Brittain said he is encouraged by the success of several recent school-finance suits that were pursued in state courts, including ones in Kentucky and Texas.

"These new waves of school-financing suits,'' Mr. Brittain said, "have demonstrated the states' willingness to tackle tough social issues.''

Vol. 11, Issue 33, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: May 6, 1992, as Pursuing a Vision of Equality in Conn. Court
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