Elizabeth Horton Sheff, with Gov. Ned Lamont behind her, at the settlement announcement. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio
Elizabeth Horton Sheff speaks to reporters outside the courthouse Friday after reaching a settlement with the state in the school desegregation case. With her are Attorney Martha Stone, Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

State officials agreed Friday to enroll more than 1,000 new students in magnet schools as part of a milestone agreement in the decades-long Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation case. The agreement dedicates 600 of those seats to the more than 12,000 children who attend struggling, segregated schools in Hartford.

The agreement with civil rights attorneys also includes a commitment by the state to overhaul how it awards seats in magnet schools. That plan will address the backlog created when thousands of children were turned away from integrated schools and left on the waiting list each year.

The settlement follows six years of stagnation in the number of children from Hartford attending integrated schools – and almost 24 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Hartford’s minority children, “suffer daily”  from inequities caused by severe racial and economic isolation.

Civil rights attorneys were prepared to drag the state back to court for not complying with the high courts’ order after efforts stalled under the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Under the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong, the civil rights attorneys were able to find middle ground.

“Look, this is a big deal. We’ve taken a big legal cloud off our shoulders, but that is no reason for us to slack off now. This is a wake up call,” Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said during press conference outside the courthouse.

“We’ve taken a big legal cloud off our shoulders, but that is no reason for us to slack off now. This is a wake up call.”

Gov. Ned Lamont

While this settlement only affects Hartford-area schools, Lamont hinted he is considering ways to desegregate schools in other areas of the state. Turning to Elizabeth Horton Sheff – the Hartford parent who sued the state in 1989 – Lamont said, “You lit a fire and we are going to take this around the state.”

In the courtroom, Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger was pleased a path forward has been finally been forged.

“This is a great improvement,” he told the parties while picking up his pen to sign the 29-page agreement. “Certainly, it’s the children who win.”

Elizabeth Horton Sheff addressed the court Friday. She is the original lead plaintiff in the case, which was filed in 1989. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

The settlement is also expected to blunt challenges in federal court about the way the school choice lottery is administered. Parents suing the state in those cases believe the state’s lottery is enforcing discriminatory racial quotas because it is designed to limit black and Hispanic enrollment to 75 percent of a magnet school’s enrollment.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the Hartford families in those cases and have argued against affirmative action in lawsuits across the country, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

What’s in the settlement?

In addition to the 600 seats for Hartford children, 500 seats will also be made available for children from surrounding suburban  towns.

These seats will largely come from the creation of additional preschool classrooms at existing schools and a middle school opening at Goodwin College’s Riverside Magnet School in East Hartford, which has the space to offer additional grades.

Funding for the additional magnet seats and other efforts will come from a bucket of funding the state legislature and governor have already set aside for this settlement in the adopted state budget. The price tag is modest – less than $2.5 million – since no additional magnet schools will be constructed.

Funding will also be used to entice suburban school officials with declining enrollments to offer more Hartford residents a spot in their schools. Historically, suburban towns have not offered many seats to city students, with a common reason being cited that state reimbursement didn’t cover the cost to the district.

The parties also agreed to figure out a long-term path forward.

This school year, 3,481 of the 5,572 Hartford children who applied were offered a seat in a desegregated school – a 62% success rate. The settlement requires the state to figure out how to offer more opportunities for Hartford students to attend integrated schools.

“It’s one of the most significant pieces of this agreement,” said Martha Stone, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case and head of the Center for Children’s Advocacy. “It moves the needle forward.”

Deuel Ross, an attorney with NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told a packed courtroom what the settlement means.

“It’s important that we remember there are real black and brown kids who benefit,” Ross said.

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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  1. Building $40M schools has not fixed the underlying problems that begin at the students homes. The nanny state throws money at problems and the wrong people get rich in the process.

  2. I would love for all kids to receive a quality education, with stringent standards and solid discipline included…but I’m getting confused. More and more we hear demands (albeit primarily in Higher Education circles) for segregated facilities—for better living, learning and socializing environments.

    Personally, I prefer school vouchers. Let’s force schools/systems to perform in order to attract more students–including necessary trade schools. Competition among schools–as in sports–is good. I’m tired of the ‘everybody gets a trophy’ mentality that rewards mediocrity. Thank goodness we kept our kids motivated to excel in ALL areas of life. They earned their way, scholastically and athletically, into top universities and have gone on to extremely successful, rewarding and respected careers.

  3. There is still no proof that desegregation works as intended. In fact, there are more case studies to suggest the opposite result occurs in school districts across the nation who try and force this experiment on students. Millions and millions of tax dollars have been spent in CT for years and the results are marginal at best. Increasing minority recruitment of teachers is also a great idea, but no one is preventing anyone from passing all of the requirements needed to become a teacher in CT. And lowering the standards/scores to allow someone who can “relate to students” an easier path to certification is certainly not a way to help our students’ progress.

    Unfortunately, Hartford students must overcome the issues of poverty and broken families in their neighborhoods, which are never discussed openly when determining the causes of inequity. Until they are, nothing will change in the schools.

  4. If the solution to disadvantaged students being poorly served in underperforming schools is as simple as putting Hartford students in better schools then why don’t all of these powerful politicians and leaders just make Hartford schools as good as these suburban schools are supposed to be.

    I’ll bet the situation is much more complicated than that. There’s probably a lot of details that aren’t being discussed, things they don’t want to discuss, problems that are a lot harder to solve than bussing students from poor schools to good schools.

    I wonder how much this will negatively effect the schools that are doing well now; how their learning environments will be degraded and disrupted and what those parents will think and do about it.

  5. What are the tangible benefits of Magnets? What have the costs been to litigate and to implement over the years? Is it a winner? What has improved?? Where is the data?

      1. Out of date data, tests no longer taken like CAPT, no indicator for students coming/going….. just proves that there is no data to justify any educational benefit . This is purely a social engineering , feel-good, spend a lot of money effort.

  6. Reserved seats for 600 out of 12,000 struggling students. This is not a solution, it is a diversion. Our state government is more worried about upsetting the public school teacher unions, than truly helping these struggling children. Who are held captive in a failing public school system.

  7. Until the multigenerational, government-supported breakdown of the family is changed, no amount of money will change academic results. Half empty CREC schools that cost $3.2 billion to build and $500 million annually to operate have abysmal test scores. And their physical attributes make the “rich suburban” schools look like slums.

    No one has addressed the lack of fathers in households. And the economic incentives to have more children. How many fathers take their children to school/bus stop?

    There needs to be a blunt, honest conversation about the real causes of this. Not more “programs”.

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