The June court order in the landmark Hartford school integration case of Sheff v. O’Neill circled the flight of Hartford school equity efforts into a second, one-year holding pattern.  Children are in that hovering plane awaiting clearance to land.  How many years will it take to give this city’s children a fair shot at the education that the State constitution – and its highest court – have guaranteed?

It’s not clear.  Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger June 10th signed a second extension to the Sheff Phase III stipulation, giving the State until June 30, 2017 to execute reasonable measures for reducing the racial, ethnic, and economic isolation in the Hartford Public Schools.

The good news is that Hartford is trying.  Very few metro-area desegregation efforts were sustained after the U.S. Supreme Court punted the problem to the states in 1974, as HPS-invited legal analysts observed back in March at a forum on race.  Connecticut has been a national leader in seeking voluntary measures to remedy segregation in its capital city, an obligation to which very few jurisdictions otherwise attend.

The path has been politically shaky and legally circuitous, riddled with misconceptions, such as the one that magnet schools rob neighborhood school funding … when they actually brought new money into Hartford and largely left per-pupil spending unaffected.

Here are some noteworthy details from the latest order:

  • Even though the 20th anniversary of the State Supreme Court order for desegregation of low-performing, racially-isolated Hartford schools will be marked this Saturday, the remedies have only been fully in motion for about half that time.
  • Judge Berger’s latest order recounts the Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III stipulations in the case (in 2003, 2008, and 2013, respectively).  Since 2013, the stipulations as to remedial actions have been band-aided with one-year extensions; for example, last month’s order is the second extension to come during the three-year-old Phase III.
  • The latest one-year extension has been agreed to by all parties: the plaintiffs, represented by Attorney Martha Stone at the Center for Children’s Advocacy at UConn law school and Hartford Attorney Wesley Horton as well as the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund; the defendant, the State; and the City of Hartford, which has intervened in the case.
  • The integration goal for this past year had been to place 47.5 percent of Hartford minority students in reduced racial-isolation settings (those with fewer than 75 percent minority enrollments).  The outcome was, however, 2 percentage points below this 47.5 percent goal.  Now, the new stipulation simply re-asserts the unachieved goal.

What Could Be Done to Improve the Sheff Remedies’ Effectiveness?

The voluntary, two-way, regional effort to raise quality and reduce segregation in Hartford Public Schools has a long history in Greater Hartford, as the archives of the Sheff Movement coalition attest, online here.  And yet, according to former Sheff lawyer and current Sheff Movement coalition Staff Director Philip Tegeler, he and his colleagues have become frustrated at the inability of the State to negotiate a long-term, sustainable plan to meet the constitutional obligations of Sheff.

“State legislators complain about why there is no five- or 10-year plan,” he said in an interview this week.  “Everyone is frustrated with these one-year agreements.”

Certainly the State budget crisis this year is crucial to the context, Attorney Tegeler added, but Greater Hartford needs a system – sustainable over time – that provides both incentives for integration and sanctions against school districts that fiddle around on the sidelines.

“All towns should be treating Hartford kids as valued members of their school communities,” he elaborated.  “This is the 50th anniversary of the one-way Project Concern inter-district transfer effort.  We know the essential elements for success: positive school climate, transportation, and even though I don’t like the term – ‘cultural competency’.  The system should not reward districts for staying segregated; some communities just have not been inclined to fully participate.”

Here are several other points of information from Attorney Tegeler, who also serves as president and executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council:

  • The State, through its education commissioner, has the authority to mandate a fair number of additional seats in the suburbs for Hartford students, based on capacity;
  • Such a mandate could be attached to State funding, as school districts exist at the pleasure of the State;
  • While the current and now continuing goal for Hartford students attending school in reduced isolation settings is to lower the proportion to 47.5 percent, the Sheff Movement coalition believes 100 percent of Hartford children should have that option;
  • Priority recognition for families who have repeatedly participated in but never gotten an offer after participating in regional choice lotteries – is a positive goal stated in the new order; and
  • Other positive developments could come as responses to the June 11 order’s call for continued data collection and choice lottery changes for reducing disparities both between the number of English Language Learner students in Hartford neighborhood and Sheff magnet schools and those requiring special education services.

Given that the region now is stalled at the 47.5 percent mark for Hartford students attending schools deemed not racially isolated, it would be nice if the State could stop acting like a defendant and really take ownership, Attorney Tegeler told us.  “We have a highly segregated and unequal region,” he reflected.  “We can’t just stop at the half-way mark.”

The Bottom Line.  For so many Hartford and suburban families reaping the benefits of high-quality magnet schools for their children, or for those families happy to bus their students out to suburban schools or in to Hartford neighborhood schools, Sheff continues to be a huge success – a real coup for Hartford nationally.  And among all the different reform strategies that have been – and could be – implemented to ensure high quality schools exist for all Hartford students, Sheff-created options (whether managed by HPS or CREC) have proven to be most effective. Then, it begs the question: Why stop the expansion, as has been signaled by the State, and supported by some here in Hartford?

Because they’re expensive?  We get that, especially given CT’s current fiscal state. Because Hartford (as a city) has not been able to completely fix its neighborhood schools yet, and the “have vs. have-nots” dynamic leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth?  That’s certainly not a logical reason.  Or is it because pulling more Hartford students out of neighborhood school settings will make the school district no longer economically viable?  Maybe it’s a combination of all three reasons.

But when we remind Hartford residents who are angry at Sheff for having created a “have vs. have-nots” reality that if the court order is lifted, the State is under no obligation to invest any new dollars into Hartford’s neighborhood schools, a much deeper conversation ensues about how to make Sheff part of a larger plan to improve those neighborhood schools perceived as being left behind.  That conversation is nuanced, and one we want to have more broadly – starting with what the Superintendent has started in the Equity 2020 initiative.  Be on the lookout for more stories detailing the current state of Sheff and changes that we recommend be considered, with urgency.