Connecticut Lawsuits Revisit Familiar Debates

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The Superior Court in Middletown, Conn., this month has provided the latest forum for a familiar argument over whether the state has done enough to ease educational inequities.

This time, it's the return of the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case to a trial court that has refocused debate on integration and school finance in Connecticut.

The hearings in Middletown come 26 months after the state supreme court handed down a desegregation order in Sheff. They also come nine years after that lawsuit was first filed and 21 years after the high court ruled in Horton v. Meskill, the school finance suit that laid much of the groundwork for the current legal fights over school equity in the state.

Connecticut school advocates know litigation is rarely a fast track for education reform, but the continuing legal action has some wondering when the last chapter of the state's courtroom saga will be written.

"Any time Connecticut has had to go to a major change in education policy--whether in financing or in student assignment--it's always been as part of a lawsuit," said Superintendent James Connelly of the 22,000-student school system in Bridgeport, one of 12 municipalities that recently revisited the Horton ruling with a new lawsuit. "And it's almost a generation of kids who go through the system before the reforms come, which is very frustrating."

'Imaginary Lines'

Some state observers attribute the litigiousness over schoolissues in part to the high premium placed on local control in Connecticut, which lacks any county government system. Forced to fend for themselves in a state politically dominated by wealthy suburbs, poor districts frequently have sought help through the courts.

"There's definitely a real sense in Connecticut that people are concerned only with the town they live in, and that the one next door is a world apart, even though those town boundaries are just imaginary lines," said state Rep. Cameron C. Staples. A Democrat who represents urban New Haven, Mr. Staples supports the segregation remedy Connecticut lawmakers passed in 1997 and expanded earlier this year.

Local control figured prominently in the 1996 Sheff ruling, when the court said the state bore responsibility for ending racial segregation in education, even if it was not caused by discriminatory measures. The state law making school district lines contiguous with town boundaries had, the court ruled, contributed significantly to racial and ethnic isolation. ("Conn. Supreme Court Orders Desegregation for Hartford," Aug. 7, 1996).

But lawmakers didn't respond with anything so radical as a new map for Connecticut's districts. Instead, they passed an expensive package of initiatives designed to raise educational opportunities in the minority-dominated urban districts while allowing students to transfer voluntarily between districts. Education spending overall in Connecticut has increased by about $100 million a year as the state has enacted the remedies.

"We wanted to attract people to better programs rather than force people into worse ones," Mr. Staples said.

But the Sheff plaintiffs say the state fell short of the mark. They've argued for specific goals and timetables for reducing segregation in Hartford, which they say has gotten worse since the 1996 ruling. Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma, who is hearing this month's testimony, is expected to decide within two months if the state's efforts go far enough.

'A Dialogue'

In the meantime, Connecticut faces a school finance lawsuit that is, in part, the reincarnation of the two-decade-old Horton case. The new suit, Johnson v. Rowland, was filed last March on behalf of students in 12 cities and towns who argue they're missing out on funds they should be guaranteed by the state's school finance formula.

Connecticut put the current formula in place after Horton. Before the Horton ruling in 1977 each district received a flat, per-pupil amount--which the plaintiffs argued hurt poor communities that could not raise as much in property taxes. Wesley Horton, the lead lawyer in Horton and the father of one of the plaintiffs, is now a lead attorney in the Sheff case.

In recent years, the 12 municipalities say, the state has capped the amount allotted for the formula, again increasing reliance on local property taxes.

Last week's primary elections, which made Barnaby Horton the Democratic candidate for a seat in the state House representing Hartford, was a reminder of just how long Connecticut's school finance battles have gone on. Now 29, he was just 5 years old when his father filed Horton v. Meskill on his behalf.

"It is kind of ironic that 25 years later we're still talking about educational equality in Connecticut," the younger Mr. Horton said last week. "It's pretty clear that the state should provide an equal educational opportunity to every child, and that, if it doesn't, it's breaking the law."

Despite all the legal activity, some say Connecticut is no more likely than other states to find itself in court.

"What tends to go on, whether the plaintiffs win or lose, is there tends to be a dialogue between the courts and the legislature. And it's very hard to get closure," said Michael A. Rebell, who teaches institutional-reform litigation at the Yale University law school in New Haven.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Connecticut Lawsuits Revisit Familiar Debates
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