A comprehensive school choice plan submitted Thursday in the Sheff v. O’Neill case is intended to end 33 years of litigation and court oversight over how to redress racial, ethnic and socioeconomic segregation in the schools of Hartford and its suburbs.
Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger gave preliminary approval to a multimillion-dollar plan to expand remedies that evolved in fits and starts over a quarter century, primarily in state-funded magnet schools and the voluntary Open Choice program in suburban districts.
“This new settlement puts in place for the first time in the case a long-range plan designed to provide a seat in a desegregated and quality school for every Hartford resident student who applies to the Sheff school choice system,” said former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp, who has served as the Sheff Plaintiffs’ Representative to the state Department of Education since 2012. “I look forward to working with the state Education Department, the Hartford Public Schools and the operators of the regional school choice sites to implement this agreement once it is approved by the General Assembly and to seek fulfillment of our state constitution’s guarantee of an equal educational opportunity for all students.”
If accepted by the General Assembly, the plan would commit the state for the first time to guaranteeing an integrated education to every minority Hartford student who seeks one. It would be enforced by a permanent injunction requiring the state to carry out the plan for 10 years or face a return to court.
The deal was endorsed by Gov. Ned Lamont, the sixth governor confronted with the issue of racial isolation in Hartford raised by a lawsuit filed in 1989 against Gov. William A. O’Neill on behalf of a fourth grader, Milo Sheff, and others.
Ten years old when the case was filed, Milo Sheff celebrated his 43rd birthday on Thursday. He now has a son and grandson, both named Milo, said his mother, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, a former Hartford city council member.
She told the judge, who had welcomed her with the familiarity of an old friend after years of court proceedings, that she greeted the prospect of the case ending with the same emotions experienced the first time she left her son in school.
“And I just want to say, ‘Please take care of my baby. I’m giving you my baby,’” she said, smiling.
In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs in 1996, before Connecticut’s current attorney general had started law school. It found that the racial isolation and unequal resources suffered by Hartford students violated the Connecticut Constitution.
The General Assembly responded the following year with the first in a series of laws addressing the court’s mandate to equalize educational opportunity and reduce racial isolation. It was followed by a half-dozen court-approved stipulations, a protracted effort reflecting a seemingly intractable problem.
Hartford’s schools only grew more segregated in the intervening years, but the opportunities for attending regional magnet schools as well as suburban schools through the voluntary Open Choice program increased dramatically as the state financed the construction of magnet schools.
“When we first started this case, there were no magnet schools,” said Martha Stone, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs and founder and director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “Now, 33 years later, we have 40 magnet schools, we have an open Choice program.”
Cara McClellan of the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund said Sheff followed in the tradition of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional.
“Sheff really is a continuation of the promise of Brown, and that was a promise to end segregation and the resulting impact in terms of educational inequality that flows from segregation,” said McClellan, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
Attorney General William Tong said Sheff has forced Connecticut to respond to inequality in and around Hartford.
“We have dedicated as a state, as a people, unprecedented amounts of resources, focus and attention on this region,” Tong said. “What this says is that we are yet going to do even more and make an even bigger investment in the families and children of Hartford.”
The new agreement commits $1.24 million in additional magnet school funding in the current fiscal year, increasing to $32 million annually by fiscal year 2032. Costs of renovations to magnet schools are estimated at $48.7 million.
It would expand existing magnets, open one new one, expand access to suburban schools through Open Choice and take a more holistic approach to the student experience by enhancing athletics and extracurricular activities.
Goodwin University of East Hartford would open a new technical high school magnet and create “an early literacy preschool Choice program” in a renovated building in Rocky Hill. Two other magnets would focus on computer programming and coding in partnership with Amazon and Microsoft.
“Elizabeth always reminds us it’s not just about integrated schools. It’s about quality integrated schools,” Stone said. “And so we’ve put in this agreement our initiatives to improve quality.”
The new plan provides financial incentives for suburban schools to accept Hartford students through Open Choice, but the program remains voluntary and subject to vacancies.
“Just last year, there were 896 Hartford kids that wanted to go to a suburban school in a non-entry grade and never had that opportunity, because there were no suburban districts that would allow them to have educational opportunities in their district,” Stone said.
There currently are 1,287 applicants from Hartford for spots next year in Open Choice, 2,584 for magnet schools and 468 for CTECS, the Hartford Region Connecticut Technical Educational & Career System. There also are nearly 6,000 suburban applicants for magnet, CTEC and Choice schools.
Lamont did not attend the virtual court proceeding, but he appeared with Tong, Stone, Sheff, and others at a press conference.
“You kicked us to do the right thing, and I’m glad,” Lamont told them. “This is a way we have control over our own destiny now. This is an opportunity for Connecticut to get it right for Hartford, to get it right and to set an example around the rest of the state and around the rest of the country. This is a way that we’re going to make sure that no kid’s left behind, regardless of race, color or creed.”
The plan requires the state “meet the demand of Hartford-resident minority students for an integrated educational experience through a continuum of diverse school choice options with the opportunity for continued enrollment in a choice school through graduation as a priority.”
During the court proceeding, Berger thanked Sheff and the lawyers for their long years of advocacy and negotiation and their willingness to follow the simple and consistent advice he gave every time they met — to keep talking.
“Thank you to all of you,” Berger said. “And while this is pending before the legislature — and over the next 10 years — I urge you all to keep talking.”
NancyOnNorwalk reporter Nancy Guenther Chapman contributed to this story.