School desegregation

The Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation lawsuit ranks as one of the most influential legal cases in the history of Connecticut’s public schools. Civil rights groups filed the case on behalf of 17 schoolchildren in 1989, alleging that the richest state in the nation had allowed Hartford, its capital city, to run an impoverished, racially isolated school system.

The case was based on a novel legal strategy of turning to state courts rather than federal courts, where most school desegregation battles had been fought. The lead plaintiff was 10-year-old Milo Sheff, then a black fourth-grader in a public school system where more than nine out of 10 schoolchildren were black or Latino.

After years of legal wrangling, the state Supreme Court in 1996 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying the racial makeup of Hartford’s schools violated state constitutional guarantees of an equal education. The court ordered the state to reduce racial imbalance in Hartford’s schools but did not outline a specific remedy.

The state responded by expanding a school choice program, pouring more money into city schools, and building dozens of racially integrated magnet schools designed to draw students from Hartford and predominantly white suburbs.

The results since then have been mixed, and the outcome is still uncertain.

Today, thousands of Hartford schoolchildren are enrolled in racially integrated magnet schools or suburban schools, but many others are on long waiting lists. Meanwhile, Hartford’s regular public schools remain as racially isolated as they were two decades ago.

Under court-approved agreements with the Sheff plaintiffs, the state set goals for enrolling increasing numbers of Hartford children in integrated schools, but the plaintiffs recently returned to court, contending the numbers have fallen short.

One result of the Sheff ruling was the proliferation of magnet schools across the state. With the help of state construction funds, cities such as Hartford and New Haven built or renovated many schools by creating new magnets. The state has approved nearly $2 billion for construction of magnet schools since the Sheff case was filed. Fifteen years ago, Connecticut spent $5.7 million to run eight magnet schools enrolling about 1,500 students. Last year, more than 20,000 children attended 60 magnet schools in Connecticut at a cost of nearly $126 million in state funds.