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A year after Sheff v. O’Neill

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong speaks outside the Connecticut Supreme Court on the new agreements reached in the long-running Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, in Hartford, Conn.
Chris Ehrmann
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong speaks outside the Connecticut Supreme Court on the new agreements reached in the long-running Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, in Hartford, Conn.

Last year the landmark lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill was finally settled after 30 years of litigation.  The case aimed to integrate the school system in the Hartford area.  Elizabeth Horton Sheff filed the suit in 1989 on behalf of her 10-year-old son Milo. It was filed against the governor of Connecticut at that time, William O’Neill.   

But the struggle for equity in education is not over.  The settlement has more hurdles to clear.

Morning Edition host Tom Kuser speaks with Martha Stone, a lead attorney in the case for an update on the settlement.

TK: Last year the landmark lawsuit Sheff v. O'Neill was finally settled after 30 years of litigation. The case aimed to integrate the school system in the Hartford area. Elizabeth Norton Sheff filed the suit in 1989. On behalf of her 10-year-old son, Milo, it was filed against the governor of the state at the time, William O'Neill. And by the way, Milo is now in his 40s and a grandfather. But the settlement had more hurdles to clear before it could go into effect. In 2022, last year, we spoke with Martha Stone on The Full Story, she was a lead attorney in the original lawsuit. She is also the founder and director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut. And back then I asked her about the terms of the settlement.

In this new settlement, the state promises to create more access to magnet and suburban schools. For Hartford students, what do you think of the settlement? What's your perspective on this?

MS: When I started the case, back in 1989, there were no magnet schools. There was one little fledgling program in a funeral parlor, that was a performing arts half-day program. It wasn't even a school. And now all these years later, we have 41 magnet schools. We have 1000s of kids going to the open Choice Program in the suburban districts. The most important goal that we had, when we started this case, was to ensure that every Hartford student that wanted a quality integrated education would have that access. That's the achievement of this latest agreement. Because all these years, we never had that guarantee, we never had a plan, and we never had funding to back up the plan.

TK: Does the settlement offer you a sense of closure here?

MS: No, because the settlement requires that the state meet demand, there is a 10 year permanent injunction. And we have to do a lot of close monitoring. And we have to hold the state accountable to what they agreed to in this agreement, and the legislature has to provide a sustainable funding mechanism for the magnets to exist. So there isn't closure yet.

Not to mention that the legislature still has to approve the settlement agreement. So you know, the judge gave tentative approval, it has to go to the legislature. And then it has to go back to the judge to put his final signature on. And then the 10 years starts, and then we have to monitor it closely. And we have to make sure that the state is meeting that demand because if the demand exceeds capacity, as outlined in this agreement, the state has to come up with some other ideas about capacity.

TK: That is part of a conversation that I had with attorney Martha Stone last year after the settlement was announced. So what has happened since then we've invited Attorney Stone back to answer that question. And she joins me via Zoom.

TK: So in March of last year, the education committee in the General Assembly approved the Sheff v. O'Neill settlement. And after that, as we discussed, it was supposed to go back to the court for final approval, where is the settlement in this process?

MS: So the Legislature did not act, which meant that the agreement went into effect. And then it went back to the judge for final approval. He gave that final approval, and now the implementation phases have begun.

TK: Has the Legislature since then created a funding system of some sort for the new magnet schools?

MS: Not 100%. Yet, I mean, there have been some changes in this last legislative session. The state is going to look at how they can deal with the ECS funding formula for all schools, not just magnet schools. So some of the progress is happening. You know, we're not there yet.

TK: And there's a 10-year permanent injunction on the settlement. Could you explain what that means and has that 10-year clock begun to run?

MS: Yeah, the 10-year clock began to run the day that the judge approved the settlement agreement. What happens now is that we have to monitor, “is the state meeting the demand.” And there are different benchmarks set forth in the permanent injunction, which the state needs to meet. The first benchmark is that the state by 25/26 must meet entry-grade demand for Hartford students for choice schools. That means that any Hartford students that want either an integrated magnet school or an open Choice Program must be given that opportunity for the entry grades and the entry grades are defined as pre-K, K, 6th grade, and 9th grade. And then there's another benchmark later on that the state has to meet to get non-entry grade demand fulfilled.

TK: What happens after the 10 years?

MS: Well, hopefully, there won't be a problem after the 10 years, you know, hopefully, every student will, who wants that opportunity, will get that opportunity. I guess, technically, at the end of the 10 years, if that still doesn't happen, we would have gone back to court prior to that on non-compliance measures. You know, having done this case, for as many years as I have been back to court a lot of times over the course of the 30-something years. So we'll hold the state's feet to the fire and if they don't meet the demand benchmarks, then I know our team will be right back in court.

TK: Has there been any new pushback any new obstacles of any sort that you're aware of that have been put in place, or attempt to be put in place since the settlement was reached?

MS: Frankly, the opposite has happened. There's been a lot of new developments with the State Department of Ed in terms of new marketing initiatives, a new lottery system, and expanded seats. The application numbers, during COVID were down. Now they're back up again. I believe I have the latest figures. But as of the beginning of May, there were almost 19,000 applications that included Hartford and suburban that included magnets, open choice, and technical schools. So you know, 18,981 families are looking for something else.

TK: Counselor Stone, thanks so much for joining us again. And I think we're going to have to reserve time in the near future to get another update to see how things are going.

MS: Yeah, Try again in another six months and we'll hopefully have some different numbers for you.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.