The long-running Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation case heads back to court this week.
The state is arguing that over the years, the landmark case has led to unintended consequences, and it wants to change an agreed-upon desegregation formula. But plaintiffs said that doing that could lead to further racial isolation of Hartford’s schoolchildren.
The case was decided back in 1996, when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Hartford’s de facto – or unintentionally – segregated schools harm children, and deny them the integrated, quality education they deserve.
The state had to come up with a plan to integrate the schools. It involved a mix of voluntary programs – including building large, high-tech, inter-district magnet schools to attract suburban students to Hartford, as well as a two-way urban-suburban integration program called Open Choice, which offered incentives to suburban districts to accept Hartford students.
At the moment, there are lots of open seats at Hartford magnet schools, all while Hartford kids sit on wait lists.
That's because if the district let more Hartford students in, they run the risk of having too many minority students, and falling out of compliance with the court order. So the state wants to fill these seats with more Hartford kids, and they need the court to OK it.
Robert Cotto is an education professor at Trinity College, and has been closely examining Sheff for years. He said the state's position has shifted away from the magnet schools as a primary solution toward integration.
"I think there's a difference in philosophy between the Sheff plaintiffs who might say, you know, 'We have quality integrated education in these magnet schools, and the Open Choice program. Let's expand that. Let's make that available to more students,'" Cotto said. "And the state, and the governor, who say, 'Well, we think we've gone far enough,' or, 'We'd like to do this in a different way, either through charter schools or through school funding.'"
A major force in the pending case will likely be money, said Cotto, who's also a Hartford Board of Education member. The state is facing a major budget deficit, and building more magnet schools to further the desegregation effort would be costly.
Paul Diego Holzer agreed. He runs Achieve Hartford, an education advocacy nonprofit. He said the magnet system has helped to integrate the schools, but more should be done to maximize options for families.
"Keeping the percentages the way they are, and keeping more Hartford students from having access, is antithetical to solving Hartford," Holzer said. "And I just think there's got to be a middle ground."
The case heads back to Connecticut Supreme Court on Tuesday.