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"Sheff v. O'Neill: Racial Isolation Declared Unconstitutional in Connecticut's Public Schools,"

by Philip Tegeler & John Brittain September/October 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

On July 9, 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court opened a new chapter in school desegregation law by declaring that the racially segregated conditions in Hartford and its surrounding suburban school districts violate the Connecticut Constitution's guarantee of equal educational opportunity.

The Sheff case, filed in 1989, had challenged patterns of racial and economic segregation as well as stark disparities in resources and student achievement in Hartford and 21 surrounding districts. (In 1994-1995, the student population of the Hartford public schools was 42.7% African American and 50.7% Latino, with 78.2% of students receiving free/reduced price lunch.) The Supreme Court, however, declined to reach plaintiffs' claims regarding poverty concentration and unequal resources, and focussed instead on the harms of racial and ethnic segregation. As the Court observed, "Finding a way to cross the racial and ethnic divide has never been more important than it is today."

The Court's 4-3 decision, written by retiring Chief Justice Ellen Peters, was based on the affirmative obligation set out in the Connecticut Constitution's education clause and the wording of the state's equal protection clause, which bars "segregation or discrimination." Using a "conjoint reading" of these constitutional provisions, Justice Peters wrote that Article Eighth, §1-the fundamental right to an education-is "informed" by Article First, §20-which prohibits racial discrimination and segregation. Reading these provisions together, the Court concluded "that the existence of extreme racial and ethnic isolation in the public school system deprives school children of a substantially equal educational opportunity and requires the state to take further remedial measures."

The State Supreme Court rejected the state's reliance on federal precedent and struck out in several important new directions:
· The Court explicitly rejected disenminatory intent as a necessary basis for liability. Under the Court's reasoning, the state constitution guarantees equal educational opportunity, and "[a] significant component of...substantially equal educational opportunity is access to a public school education that is not substantially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation." Thus, the Court reasoned, "[i]f significant racial and ethnic isolation continues to occur within the public schools, for which the legislature has an affirmative constitutional obligation. . . no special showing of an invidious segregative intent is required."
· The Court, in a significant de-parture from Milliken v. Bradley (a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case rejecting a city-suburban desegregation remedy), does not require separate liability findings against each local suburban school district affected by the decision. The sole defendants are state officials, because the state by statute delegates educational administration to the 22 districts encompassed in the case, and under the state constitution is ultimately responsible for providing education.
· The Court repeatedly uses the term "racial isolation"-in addition to segregation-as a basis for liability, finding, for example, that the Hartford public school system "suffers from severe and increasing racial and ethnic isolation, [and] that such isolation is harmful to students of all races." This approach suggests that mere integration of surrounding suburban districts would not be sufficient to satisfy the Court's ruling.

In June 1995, the trial court had ruled against the plaintiffs, finding insufficient state action upon which to base a remedy. But in the most significant legal determination in the case, the Supreme Court found the state responsible for the racial and ethnic isolation, based in part on districting statutes passed many decades ago. Connecticut statutes not only dictate the type of education in the local districts, but, according to the Court, the statutory districting scheme enacted in 1909, which confines school districts to municipal boundary lines and assigns students to public schools where they reside, "is the single most important factor contributing to the present concentration of racial and ethnic minorities in the Hartford public school system."

The Court also reflected on the importance of integrated education to society, citing Brown v. Board of Education and noting that "it is crucial for a democratic society to provide all of its schoolchildren with fair access to an unsegregated education," and that "the elimination of racial isolation in the schools promotes the attainment of equal educational opportunity and is beneficial to all students, both black and white."

Instead of imposing a remedy or seeking submission of plans to the lower court, the Supreme Court deferred to the Connecticut legislature to design a remedy. In response, the Governor and legislative leadership have appointed an "Educational Improvement Panel," which is scheduled to report to the legislature by the end of this year.

PRRAC's 1992 grant played an important role in the Sheff case, supporting the research and testimony of Dr. Gary Natriello of Columbia University's Teachers College. Dr. Natriello's report included a comprehensive analysis of the resources and achievement levels in the Hartford schools, as compared with surrounding suburban districts. His testimony spanned three days during the trial in the winter of 1992-1993. Although the majority opinion refused to rule on the plaintiffs' poverty concentration claim, it clearly acknowledged the socioeconomic conditions.

Having won the liability phase of the Sheff lawsuit, the real test for meaningful change in education for schoolchildren in Hartford lies ahead in the remedial phase. The plaintiffs will need further social science and educational reform expertise in the coming months as the plaintiffs present their plans to the Connecticut legislature, and if necessary, to the state Superior Court, which retains jurisdiction of the case.

Philip Tegeler is the legal director at the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Foundation, an affiliate of the ACLU (32 Grand St., Hartford, CT 06106, 860/247-9823).
 
John Brittain is a professor at the Univ. of Connecticut School of Law. Tegeler and Brittain have worked as part of the Shell legal team for more than 7 years. Other current members of the legal team include Marianne Lado and Dennis Parker of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Juan Figueroa and Sandra Del Valle of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, Chris Hansen of the ACLU Foundation, and Connecticut attorneys Wes Horton, former CCLV legal director Martha Stone, and Wilfred Rodriquez, formerly with the Hispanic Advocacy Project of Neighborhood Legal Services.
The Sheff decision is reported at 238 Conn. I. For a history of the case, see f C. Brittain, "Educational and Racial Equity Toward the Twenty-First Century - A Case Experiment in Connect-icut, "in Race in America: The Struggle for Equality (Herbert Hill et a,t eds., Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1993y Dr. Nat riello 's 271-page. Nov. 1992 report, "A Descriptive Study of the Educational Resources of the Hartford Public Schools and Disparities with Other Districts, "is available from the A CLV Foundation, 132 H'. 43 St., #503, N YC, NY 10036, 212/944-9800. A copy of the lengthy Sheff decision is available ($6.50 Jbr copying costs) from co-author Tegeler, CCLV, 32 Grand St., Hanford, CT 06106, 860/247-9823.
 
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