After 14 years of court battles, political maneuvering and heated public debate, the two sides in Connecticut's historic Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation case have signed a four-year truce.
On Jan. 28, an agreement was reached between the plaintiffs and the state, but its success or failure will hinge largely on whether Hartford can attract white suburban children into the city to attend proposed new magnet schools.
The Sheff case, led by UCCmember Elizabeth Horton Sheff on behalf of her son Milo, brought together a unique coalition of African- American, Puerto Rican and white public school children to challenge the economic and racial segregation of the public schools in Hartford and the lack of educational resources in the city schools. The plaintiffs contended that the concentration of poor students in the city schools, coupled with the racial segregation and disparities in the allocation of instructional materials, deprives Hartford children of their state constitutional right to an equal educational opportunity.
"Sheff v. O'Neill is such an important case," says Jan Resseger, the UCC's Minister for Public Education and Witness in Justice and Witness Ministries. "That [the Sheff case] was brought under Connecticut's constitution is very significant, because the case has forced Connecticut to address education as a civil right at the same time this ideal has been abandoned in federal courts across the United States."
The agreement comes as schools in many states are becoming increasingly segregated. A recent Harvard University study says that a growing number of black and Latino students nationwide are attending schools consisting mainly of minority groups while white students are increasingly likely to attend schools that have few minorities.
A key provision of the agreement is the creation of eight new magnet schools in or near Hartford over the next four years, something both sides see as essential to changing a longstanding pattern of racial segregation in schools in Connecticut's capital city. Hartford public schools, where more than 90 percent of students are black or Latino, remain as segregated today as they were when the Sheff lawsuit was filed in 1989.
Under the proposed settlement, the state for the first time would establish specific goals for increasing the number of Hartford children attending integrated magnet schools or enrolling in suburban schools under a voluntary transfer program. The inclusion of specific goals and timetables was a key objective for plaintiffs, but the plan—which depends upon parents making voluntary choices—falls short of the original vision of the plaintiffs, which included the possible redrawing of boundary lines between city and suburban school districts.
"Please continue to pray for us," says Horton Sheff, "for the struggle is not over. We will continue to monitor the state's progress and return to court if need be."