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Sheff v. O’Neill Turns 20: How Long Will It Take For The State To Fulfill Its Promise To Connecticut Kids?

Last Saturday marked a major anniversary for Connecticut, though you’d never know it. It wasn’t total radio silence, but certainly not the usual fanfare that comes from the 20th anniversary of a seminal supreme court case.

The most prominent mention of the landmark Connecticut State Supreme Court Case Sheff v. O’Neill, which turned 20 on Saturday, came from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy who mentioned the decision while unveiling a new school diversity bill that, if passed, would give districts across the country access to $120 million in grant money for desegregation efforts.

In truth, the announcement seemed like a fitting testament to our failures.

Forty-two years after Brown v. the Board of Education made de jure, or legally enforced, segregation illegal in U.S. schools, on July 9th, 1996, the Connecticut State Supreme Court ordered the city of Hartford to desegregate schools. Unlike the Federal case, for the first time, State Justices ruled against not only intentional segregation but also de facto, unintentional segregation.

The Sheff decision was monumental because it ruled that Connecticut had a constitutional duty to guarantee all children a “substantially equal education opportunity” which could not be  “substantially and materially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation.”

It’s clear we have not fulfilled that promise.

Fast forward to today and Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country and its cities are still largely segregated. In fact, according to the Connecticut Mirror, racial isolation among school children has only worsened in the last two decades.

While Hartford has had some success integrating schools, Bridgeport and New Haven’s diversity gap has widened.

Right now, students of color make up 91 percent of Bridgeport’s student population is, which considering the lack of investment in school choice, essentially ensures that almost everystudent is attending isolated schools. Even in Hartford, that has made strides integrating, only about half of all students have access to high-quality, racially and socioeconomically diverse, schools of choice.

Over the last 10 years the state has invested $2 billion (yes, that’s billion with a ‘B’) in Hartford Public Schools, and yet as their Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez describes, the city has been left with a “tale of two school systems,” where half the students have access to seats in nearby suburban, magnet, and charter schools. According to the Superintendent, the other half are often stuck attending crumbling, low-performing neighborhood schools.

“There is going to have to be an increase in the amount of courage, vision, and leadership that is shown by all the parties,” said Sheff Attorney Martha Stone to the Hartford Courant earlier this year, after the plaintiffs reluctantly accepted a new agreement that gave the state another one-year extension to implement the third stage of Hartford’s desegregation plan.

“The glass is still half-empty, and the promise of thousands of children in Hartford is still very elusive,” said Stone.

Currently, the state identifies schools as “racially isolated” if students of color make up more than 75 percent of the student body. Some groups, including Achieve Hartford, which wrote a 2014 Op-Ed for the Connecticut Mirror on the subject, believe this might be part of the problem since these quotas have had the unintended consequence of forcing schools to cap enrollment when not enough suburban, white students choose to go to a Sheff magnet school.

This leaves thousands of Hartford children on waiting lists for high-performing magnet and charter schools that have room to take more students, but can’t.

If the promise of Sheff is elusive in Hartford, it’s almost totally absent in Bridgeport, which has had virtually no investment in desegregation efforts. Right now, over 60 percent of Bridgeport schools are racially and economically isolated. As Education Week commentator James E. Ryan lamented, “technically, the ruling in Sheff only applies to the Hartford area.”

As Ryan explained in his recent article on Sheff, after the Brown v. The Board of Education ruling came down, NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers dragged Southern school districts that refused to desegregate into court. Though a few stragglers were able to slip by (looking at you Cleveland, Miss.), this meant that the decision was far-reaching. This didn’t happen after Sheff.

The result is that Bridgeport, and other cities outside the Hartford area, have lost out on the state investment. Bridgeport, for example, receives $5,000 per-pupil in taxpayer funding than Hartford. This means that despite the fact that they are clearly violating student’s right to an equitable education, there are substantially fewer school seats in high quality diverse schools open to students.

Chris Murphy proposal is certainly a step in the right direction, but at this point, we’ve already failed an entire generation of Connecticut kids.




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