Back in Court, Sheff Plaintiffs Say Conn. Integration Lacking

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Nearly six years after Connecticut's landmark desegregation order, the group that initiated the lawsuit that led to the ruling is asking the courts to step in again—this time with a plan of its own that proposes how state leaders should carry out the mandate.

The pitch for greater judicial involvement comes as a state superior court judge must decide whether Connecticut's integration efforts have been adequate, or if more needs to be done to reduce the racial and ethnic isolation that persists among the schools in the Hartford region.

Prompted by the plaintiffs' charges that the state has been dragging its feet, hearings on the case known as Sheff v. O'Neill have been held during the past two weeks in a New Britain courthouse.

While revisiting familiar territory, the plaintiffs have added a new twist in the latest round of legal wrangling by proposing a desegregation strategy based on voluntary student transfers. This marks the first time the group has offered so specific a remedy.

The plan endorses many efforts already begun by the state, particularly in supporting magnet schools and other public school choice options. But, the plaintiffs say, those state initiatives must be scaled up dramatically.

"We're not talking about micromanagement of a regional school system by a court," said Philip Tegeler, a lawyer with the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. "We just really reflect back to the state what they have said they want to do, and urge the court to order the rollout of these programs on a more reasonable timetable."

When Connecticut's highest court issued its 1996 ruling in Sheff, the justices left it to state officials to decide the best course of action. Since then, policymakers have responded with a series of efforts aimed at allowing—and even encouraging—students to attend schools outside their home districts.

Along with new subsidies for magnet schools that enroll students from multiple districts, the state allocates funds to encourage districts to take part in a program called Open Choice, which lets students transfer between school systems. Even with those efforts, the 24,000-student Hartford district remains more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.

"We've taken the resources provided and taken steps," said Tom Murphy, the chief spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education. "There has been small progress, but there is much more to go."

The plaintiffs, a group of white and minority students from Hartford and surrounding communities, blame state officials—not an indifferent public—for the lack of headway. In recent months, the popularity of the small handful of magnet schools now operating in Hartford has suggested to some that many more suburban families would send their children to school in the city if more space were available.

Waiting Lists

One Montessori magnet school in Hartford, for example, currently has more than 200 predominantly white families from the suburbs on a waiting list, according to Mark D. O'Donnell, an official with the Capital Region Education Council, a cooperative venture of Hartford-area school systems that provides educational services, including help running magnet schools.

Said Mr. O'Donnell: "If the state is willing to put the money forth to build these really attractive educational options, then parents in even the wealthy suburbs will send their kids."

To achieve a racial makeup in the city's schools that more closely matches that of the surrounding area, the Sheff plaintiffs are asking the superior court to order the implementation of what they're calling a "start-up" plan.

A series of four- year goals outlined in that plan include: the opening of more than a dozen new magnet schools in the city that would draw students regionally; the voluntary enrollment of at least 1,600 Hartford minority children in suburban schools—up from 744 last year; and new requirements that all area school systems take part in Open Choice, and that student transfers between districts be permitted only when the move contributes to desegregation.

Achieving those goals—seen by the plaintiffs as just a first step toward even more ambitious integration efforts— will require a major infusion of new funds. Just how much hasn't been estimated. And the timing may not be the best: Connecticut is looking at a state budget deficit of $500 million this fiscal year.

Still, some state officials took the plaintiffs' blueprint as a sign that policymakers have been on the right track.

"What is interesting about this is that it does underscore or support the strategies that the state has taken thus far," said Mr. Murphy. "It will be the court's role to decide whether the state's pace has been adequate or whether there needs to be an acceleration."

Vol. 21, Issue 33, Page 20

Published in Print: May 1, 2002, as Back in Court, Sheff Plaintiffs Say Conn. Integration Lacking
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