When the Sheff v. O’Neill case was filed, the goal was to bring equal educational opportunity to Hartford children who were forced to attend high poverty, racially isolated schools with inadequate resources, decrepit physical facilities, and poor academic outcomes.
Today, the Sheff case is still about equity – ensuring that Hartford children have the same educational opportunities as children in the best suburban schools and that all students have access to a quality, integrated education. No one ever said this journey would be easy, or that change would happen overnight.
It has been ten years since the state began to make significant investments to grow our region’s voluntary, two-way integration system. Students attending magnet schools and suburban schools through Open Choice have achieved high academic, career and social success.
But only a little more than 40 percent of Hartford children have access to these opportunities. Far too many students are still on wait lists at high performing magnet and choice schools. In fact, over 20,000 families ― the highest number yet ― applied for the fewer than 5,000 Open Choice and magnet school seats filled this school year.
The Sheff programs have helped improve educational achievement and narrow opportunity gaps predominant in the State of Connecticut. What we have accomplished here is often cited as a national model; though, locally, some remain reluctant to fully invest in our children’s constitutional right to a quality, integrated education.
To provide greater educational opportunity for more Hartford students, we need to stay focused on a broad definition of equity, one that emphasizes narrowing the educational opportunity gaps between Hartford and surrounding districts. Quality, integrated education must remain a central component of comprehensive reform strategies, both at state and district levels.
The Sheff Movement again urgently appeals to the State to expand access to quality, integrated education programming to all students still facing racial and economically isolated education.
For example, the state could improve equity by supporting additional investments to:
- Expand and enhance magnet school options in Hartford and the Region;
- Support creation of dual-language immersion magnet schools;
- Open up additional Open Choice seats;
- Align school construction spending with school integration goals;
- Expand and cover the costs of pre-K magnet school tuition to all eligible students; and
- Further improve the lottery system through measures including enhanced communication with parents.
Let’s be aware of the progress that has been made, and under what circumstances.
The 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court Sheff ruling was a ringing endorsement of the right of all children to a quality, integrated education, citing the existence of school district lines determined by town boundaries as a prime cause of racial and economic segregation.
Connecticut’s legislature, ordered to devise a remedy, opted to avoid the hard issue of tackling these district lines, and instead created a system of voluntary incentives and school choice. The current system’s achievements and challenges must be viewed in this light.
The Sheff plaintiffs and supporters have worked tirelessly since the court ruling in 1996 to convey that “each passing day” without access to quality, integrated education robs Connecticut’s children of their opportunity to become fully contributing citizens. As co-chairs of the Sheff Movement, we organize parents and work with partners to ensure the Sheff remedies reach all the children and families who want and need them.
Hartford still struggles with a 55 percent child poverty rate, jobs leaving the city in large numbers, and income inequality in Connecticut that is the second worst in the nation. Connecticut’s achievement gap is a crisis and warrants immediate and strong action.
We maintain an unwavering commitment to Connecticut’s children, and are eager to engage in a collaborative effort to improve and expand our region’s integration system. We will continue to strive toward a collective commitment to eliminating the opportunity gap—a commitment that is rooted in a broad, regional vision of equity. Keeping our focus on this goal, we believe, will help to eliminate Connecticut’s achievement gap, and provide true equity to all of our children. We need the creativity, diverse perspectives, and vision of partners throughout the region to help us get there.
Jim Boucher has been a member of the Sheff Movement for 10 years, served two terms on Hartford’s City Council (2004-2012), and chaired the Council’s Education Committee.
Elizabeth Horton Sheff is known for her role as the named plaintiff in Sheff vs. O’Neill, the successful landmark civil rights lawsuit, and she served twice on Hartford’s City Council (1991-1995 and 1999-2001).