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Sheff v. O’Neill settlement would expand magnet schools, ‘Open Choice’

Elizabeth Horton Sheff speaks to the press about the settlement on Thursday in Hartford. In 1989, Sheff initiated a lawsuit on behalf of her son against former Gov. William O’Neill and other state officials, arguing that the state’s isolated city and suburban schools led to racially segregated school districts. (Yehyun Kim, ctmirror.org)

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.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff hugs Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday at a press conference about the settlement of the Sheff v. O’Neill case Thursday in Hartford. Lamont is the sixth governor confronted with the issue of racial isolation raised by a lawsuit filed in 1989 against Gov. William A. O’Neill on behalf of a fourth grader, Milo Sheff, and other children. (Yehyun Kim, ctmirror.org)

“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.

Martha Stone, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, speaks on Thursday at the press conference in Hartford. “Elizabeth always reminds us it’s not just about integrated schools. It’s about quality integrated schools,” said Stone. (Yehyun Kim, ctmirror.org)

“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.

10 comments

JustaTaxpayer January 28, 2022 at 9:07 am

Yikes, 33 years of litigation? That’s really a sad fact of the judicial system.

Why does this only apply to Hartford?

Piberman January 28, 2022 at 11:34 am

Failing public schools in our major impoverished cities are a continuing stain on CT. Student outcomes are appallingly modest. Doing better requires making available alternative education choices, more funding and encouraging much greater parental involvement. Where implemented school choice has oft produced encouraging results. Without some experimentation and larger budgets how can we hope to do better ?

Alex Knopp January 28, 2022 at 8:23 pm

To Justataxpayer, Peter and Ruby: Thanks for reading this article and for the comments. In response to Justataxpayer, the case was filed in 1988 by residents of Hartford and the surrounding suburban school districts rather than on behalf of the the state. I’ve been told that this decision was based on the legal pragmatics of managing such a large case. But of course the Connecticut constitution applies to the whole state and there is no reason why a comparable desegregation lawsuit could not be brought elsewhere or no reason why additional magnet schools and Open Choice seats be set up in other regions even without the need to bring a prior lawsuit. The Center for Global Studies in Norwalk and the new Open Choice student transfer program between Darien and Norwalk are two recent examples of expanding opportunities for diversity without a prior lawsuit.

In response to Peter’s comment, a significant part of the academic literature on voluntary desegregation programs and other diversity initiatives, including the Sheff region, has shown that academic and emotional learning improved for all students in these programs as long as they were properly supported, adequately resourced and all students made to feel welcome.

Ruby, you put your finger on what we hope is the outcome from this agreement– an expanded opportunity for all children to graduate more able to succeed and contribute in our modern global economy and diverse society.

DryAsABone January 29, 2022 at 9:00 am

It would be interesting to see a tally of the entire cost of legal services.
Speaking of legal costs…next door in Scamford, the BoR will vote to add to the city legal budget.
Seems the current superintendent caused the city of run up legal bills defending the city against her claims that seem to appear as a case of hurt feelings.
And they just gave her a raise that gives her compensation of around $400K +!!
Boo hoo!

https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/New-contract-pays-400-000-in-salary-perks-for-16785559.php

https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Stamford-spent-375-000-on-an-outside-16814698.php?t=35486e5b1e&src=sthpdesecp

Piberman January 29, 2022 at 10:39 am

To Alex Knopf
It’s long been recognized that New York City’s public schools and once free tuition City College of New York were pivotal over many decades in the City’s extraordinary success. Taking in over the decades millions of children from impoverished and oft non-English speaking immigrant families. What was the magic ? As a product of that system here are some “clues”. Parents considered schools their children’s most important activities. Teachers were held in high regard. Teachers had no hesitancy demanding parents come in for “discussion” when students were under achieving. For teachers the “school day” was often 8 am to 6 pm. Discipline was severe. Being sent to the Principal’s Office was serious and humbling business. Each class had class monitors. Teachers had no hesitation calling in parents when assignments were not completed or turned in. I don’t ever recall a day when there weren’t written assignments due. In a word the system was designed to secure “student success’. No hesitancy of leaving students back a grade. Back then a high school diploma was a mark of distinction. Many of the parents had no high school diplomas. So securing one was a major effort for the entire family. Back then school was a family effort.

Today’s schools from what we could observe bear little relation to that NYC model. Social scientists have taken over. Early on the kids are segregated according to “ability”. Separating the high achievers from the lower achievers. Best we could observe those students in Norwalk’s system early on tagged as high achievers secured a high quality education. Those not so identified early on had different outcomes.

When I drive by Cranbury in the afternoon I always look in the parking lot. To get a sense of how many teachers/administrators are involved with students being kept after school. And that’s the big difference. Our teachers have a schedule. And a contract specifying the “work day”. So we see the results. Most of our grads are not securing math and science standards set by the CT Edu Dept. Nor securing college degrees.

In a word the current “system” is not designed to secure success for every student.
Those who early on fall behind typically remain behind. If we want better results we need change the system with a BOE that demands every student meets the full range of CT Edu requirements and is properly prepared to secure a serious 4 yr college degree. Rather than let the Administrators set the protocols.

Best I can observe if we want to narrow the large gap between Norwalk and surrounding town public school outcomes we need a major change in how our BOE operates. Our surrounding town BOE’s operate on a “no student left behind” principal. Norwalk’s BOE has different goals. Among the greatest gifts we can give our kids is securing a first rate public school education. Not just getting the Diploma.
Beating up on the teachers or administrators won’t bring better results. Electing BOE’s with the same skill sets and demands for student achievement common in our surrounding towns would make the difference. If we want much better student outcomes for Norwalk we need elect BOE members with the skill sets and dedication to secure that goal. At day’s end our schools reflect our City’s elected leadership.
CT Edu Dept stats show we’ve been failing for years. Beating up on teachers/administrators will not secure better results. A much more competent and dedicated BOE will. How do we know ? Ask the BOE’s of the surrounding towns.

Piberman January 29, 2022 at 12:05 pm

Long been a puzzle why our BOE does not formally and publicly adopt the goal of having a majority of Norwalk’s graduating students meet the CT Education Dept standards. And then place the responsibility for meeting that goal upon our Supt who reportedly is the highest paid in CT.

Given the resources available to our public school system where we match the per student funding with our surrounding wealthy towns with their high performing school systems are reasons why meeting CT’s Edu Dept standards for our graduating students is too unrealistic for Norwalk students ? If CT’s Edu Dept standards are too high for Norwalk then we ought see the particulars.

Isn’t it embarrassing that the majority of Norwalk’s graduating students do not meet CT’s Edu Dept standards ? Why is our elected BOE reluctant to publicly announce that meeting CT Edu Dept standards is appropriate for our City’s public school system ?
Especially when US Census Data indicate about one-half of Norwalk adults have 4 year college degrees and Norwalk’s per capita income is similar to that of CT itself.

Over 70% of our City’s budget is dedicated to public school education. Ought not we expect our schools meet CT Edu standards for a majority of our graduating students ?
Or if there are plausible reasons why such expectations are too high why not make them public. We have high expectations for our well recognized Norwalk Police Department – a source of pride for our City. Why should our public school system be different ?

Steve January 30, 2022 at 7:55 am

Piberman makes some great points re: neighboring districts and I’d love to see our schools rise to higher levels but from what I’ve watched and seen with two kids currently in the district there are a lot of strengths here. Teachers are demanding much from their students and I’m not sure where Pilberman saw students segregated by ability but it’s not at the elementary school- other than a class that meets for an hour or so every other day- the Gifted and Talented program. At the Middle School only math is divided by ability. In a Tale of Two Districts- a student in Norwalk tested in the 30% range and the family was advised that was in the “average range (25-75%) so not qualified for services, while in a neighboring town, the same thing happened and the student’s family was told it was average but services were still offered. In the neighboring districts no one fails- services are added and tutors are hired. In our system there just isn’t that much money at the District level or family. Norwalk spends about $5,000 less per student than the neighboring districts. At least at the HS level, I wouldn’t be surprised if the average parent in neighboring districts is spending another $5,000 on private tutors (not including college prep courses, private college counselors) etc…We also have at least 200 students coming into the system every year from impoverished countries where the family’s have minimal education and the children arrive without speaking English. A high % of those students come into the educational system at the HS level after years of no schooling! They work hard and are respectful, but on day 1 without any preparation they are required to take standardized testing and their scores are included in the District’s. This is a very complex problem that has a multitude of socio-economic and we can’t simply replicate what Wilton, Westport, New Canaan or Darien do.

RUBY VIA WATKINS January 31, 2022 at 12:40 pm

Is the problem the BOE, the Superintendent or the parents who just want to get their tax dollars, worth of education for their children?

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