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Hartford’s Sheff Case Requires Action From Lawmakers

Feb 11, 2022

A Hartford Superior Court judge’s agreement would allow for more Hartford students in magnet and suburban schools. It’s a significant turning point following Sheff v. O’Neill, which challenged equitable education in Connecticut’s schools. While it’s been over 30 years after the initial court case, our General Assembly has hardly resolved Connecticut’s divided school districts. In fact, the agreement requires the state’s legislative body to approve the court’s plan. Knowing our General Assembly, however, I am not expecting an immediate approval especially during an election year.

I knew Milo Sheff, the 10-year old child (now 43-year old) whose mother, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, brought the 1989 suit about Hartford’s public schools being underfunded and segregated. They were – along with my family – members of a Hartford North End church. Milo and my brother were the same age and were friends at the time. Milo received notable media attention because Connecticut having so many problematic public schools was a reminder that we are an economically and socially divided place. 

In the 1980s Connecticut was (and remains) the wealthiest state, but our communities and school districts are significantly segregated because of where we reside. Many social scientists refer to this as “invisible segregation” or “de facto segregation” and it’s been a part of the northeast’s overlooked history for generations, while Americans are more familiar with legalized or “de jure” racial segregation in southern states. 

I often lecture and research about northeastern states’ community segregation. It’s no secret that the New York City tri-state area has some of the most racially and economically divided communities especially in Long Island, Westchester County and northern New Jersey. A favorite book I have students read is Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson and it details much of the area’s de facto segregation.  

But Connecticut has a nasty habit of overlooking how wealthy and overwhelmingly White our suburbs are, while we have so many poorer and majority minority cities. Our school districts reflect our divided communities and the Sheff case was attempting to address this social and economic phenomenon. The problem has been that it relies on our state courts to remedy underfunded school districts. Even after court decisions and appeals, judges and legal experts were expecting the state and the General Assembly to resolve school financing formulas and segregated school districts. Decades later, it’s a saga that never seems to end. 

Under this recent agreement, the state would help finance seats in suburban schools for Hartford Open Choice students over a number of years. It would also end court involvement and there’s a 10-year injunction based on compliance requirements. If the state fails to adhere to the agreement following the decade period, then a new lawsuit must be filed demonstrating the state failed to provide an adequate number of seats or expand magnet schools.

This is an interesting agreement because it gets the state’s courts out of the education business and forces our General Assembly to address de facto segregation. At the same time, our state lawmakers rarely weigh in on something so politically charged and for years they have left it to the courts to resolve education financing and school district segregation.

So can we expect our General Assembly to suddenly make a swift decision on the agreement? Hardly. Some lawmakers have already made their concerns known and they recognize the constituent backlash or support for such a plan. Interestingly, many are Democrats representing Hartford’s suburbs. This includes House Majority Leader Jason Rojas who said he remained “concerned about the impact this settlement will have on the students in East Hartford, Manchester, and other surrounding communities.” 

In other words, do not expect our General Assembly to immediately resolve education financing and de facto segregation. But seeing state lawmakers’ vote on this state court agreement will be something to witness in the upcoming legislative session.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies associate dean and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.