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The Connecticut Education Committee approves Sheff v. O’Neill settlement

Connecticut Superior Court in Hartford
Lil Keller
WSHU Public Radio
Connecticut Superior Court in Hartford

Facing pressure and feeling as if they didn’t have a choice, members of the legislature’s Education Committee reluctantly approved measures addressing the Sheff v. O’Neill settlement agreement on Monday.

This decision comes after Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger approved plans in the Sheff v. O’Neill case in January aimed at ending three decades of litigation and court oversight over how to repair racial, ethnic and socioeconomic segregation in Hartford schools and its suburbs.

House and Senate Resolution No. 4 binds legislators to a multimillion-dollar plan to expand remedies in state-funded magnet schools and suburban districts’ voluntary Open Choice program.

But during Monday’s meeting, many legislators expressed frustration with courts deciding education policy and the settlement not being enough to address inequities in educational opportunities throughout Connecticut.

Education Committee Co-Chair Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, told committee members that he’s disappointed that the plaintiffs in the settlement believe this is the best option and expressed concerns about it being “extremely conditional on what other people may or may not do with their children.”

“This is just one piece of the education policy, but this gives us the opportunity to open up to discussion around education as a whole as it relates to policy, as it relates to finance, as it relates to anything and everything that governs our children,” McCrory said.

Although he has his concerns, McCrory still encouraged members to vote the legislation out of committee so that they can continue to have those conversations and discuss what opportunities they would like to see for children in the state.

“We cannot just do this and not focus on the whole child in other communities in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “It will not be fair to other communities just to reach a settlement and not have a larger discussion around [Education Cost Sharing], around policy, around everything.”

Other legislators shared their concerns about the lack of progress in their communities, adding that approving the settlement should not be the last conversation about inequities in Connecticut education.

“I’m disappointed that the interest of the state was not to educate every child but to defend against those plaintiffs,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “I’m frustrated because we are, 20-plus years later, and the questions that were existing then still exist today. And when we’re finished with this and can go, ‘Whew! We’re not up under Sheff anymore,’ and you still have extreme racial and ethnic isolation, those questions will still exist.”

Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, a ranking member on the Education Committee, agreed that legislators need to continue to work on long-term plans that prove “quality education for all our students,” but said she supports the Sheff settlement.

“I do think it’s a step in the right direction to try to provide, now in the present where we are, more choice for our students in Hartford,” McCarty said. “That’s not to say that we can’t continue to look at more resources and figuring out what we’re doing exactly with the children that remain in the Hartford schools.”

The legislature has until March 17 to vote on the measure. If they do nothing, it goes into effect.

“This settlement we reached will end more than 30 years of litigation and court oversight, ensuring that in the years ahead, thousands of Hartford students will have increased access to high-quality educational opportunities in diverse environments,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement. “The implementation of this settlement represents a major step forward in growing that opportunity for children in Hartford, and I thank legislators on the Education Committee for recognizing the importance of approving this plan.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.