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OP-ED | 19 Years later, What Has Sheff Gotten Us?

by | Dec 20, 2013 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Education, Town News, Hartford, Opinion

Quick: what is the name of the landmark court case most often associated with the Nutmeg State? If you said Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the banning of contraception to be unconstitutional, you would be correct.

But in terms of sheer impact on the state’s resources and the number of people and institutions it has affected, I’d argue that Sheff v. O’Neill has had a far greater impact.

Sheff was a school desegregation case, but unlike many others, such as the court-ordered busing crisis in 1970s Boston, the Connecticut Supreme Court did not order lawmakers to bus Hartford’s children out of their own neighborhoods to achieve racial integration.

Indeed, the court did not even find Hartford’s schools to be segregated as an intentional policy, although the students were and continue to be racially isolated. That word — segregated — connotes National Guard soldiers blocking access to all-white schools, as they did in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. But nothing like that was going on in Connecticut’s capital city.

So the state Supreme Court ruled that “racial and ethnic isolation” effectively denied Hartford’s schoolchildren their constitutional right to an equal education. Yet rather than mandate a specific solution, as federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. did when he ordered busing in Boston, a divided state court in 1996 simply told the General Assembly to come up with a remedy that works.

And it was an appropriate strategy. The top-down approach in Boston, with a gavel-wielding federal judge decreeing that the little people will live not only with his decision but with his plan, was doomed to cause social discord and failure. Connecticut’s Judicial Branch was no doubt mindful of the Boston experience when it punted the remedy to the legislature.

So 19 years and $2.5 billion in compliance expenses later, where has Sheff gotten us? Well, it’s brought us schools in Hartford that are still some of the worst performing in the state, along with the inevitable complaints about foot-dragging and remedies that haven’t worked. Still, 39 public magnet schools have been created.

And yet another agreement was reached last week to the tune of an additional $3.5 million. This one calls for the expansion of several magnet schools, the establishment of four new ones and the creation of something called a lighthouse school, which is “designed to help stabilize a neighborhood and lead to greater diversity in that community,” reports the Courant’s Kathy Megan.

In many cases, those niche schools were designed to lure white students from the suburbs into Hartford.  But they also had the unintended effect of attracting minority students from diverse suburbs such as Bloomfield and East Hartford, which did little to relieve racial isolation in the classroom and caused headaches for officials trying to comply with the goal that at last 25 percent of Hartford’s students be white, with minorities making up the balance.

There is no doubt that some progress has been made in reducing segregation, but the latest agreement appears to move the goalposts. It stipulates that Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians be counted as white. Presumably, the idea is that this will result in more seats in magnet schools going to black and Hispanic students from Hartford and not to other minorities Sheff wasn’t designed to help.

Then there also is the matter of resources diverted away from traditional public schools. State Rep. Jason Rojas, a Democrat who represents East Hartford and Manchester, wrote in a Courant op-ed last month that as the state has spent $2.5 billion on school construction to comply with Sheff, Manchester has been closing schools for lack of funds to maintain them. Meanwhile, student enrollment statewide is declining.

“Are we building more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain or make use of five years from now?” Rojas asked. “Is there a way to make better use of existing schools in all towns?”

Furthermore, as Rojas points out, since children are typically sent to schools near their homes, racial and ethnic isolation in schools is mostly a result of housing patterns. So perhaps the problem is really affordable housing more than anything else.

“We can’t continue to provide kids the benefits of integration during the day while condemning them to segregation at night,” Rojas observed.

He’s right. Unfortunately, the well intentioned Sheff decision has given us billions in new programs and lots of additional schools, but not a whole lot else. As is the case with so many government programs designed to fix an imbalance, the law of unintended consequences prevails.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(11) Archived Comments

posted by: MrRoyCT | December 20, 2013  5:53am

Although I agree that Sheff has not ended the racial isolation that our students experience, I disagree that it has provided little more than programs. This article seems like it is written by someone who has never ex

posted by: MrRoyCT | December 20, 2013  6:00am

Sheff has not solved racial isolation in our state. In fact, it is a band-aid to a larger problem. It does, however, reduce racial barriers for students who attend the schools. The value is much more than just programs. It seems as though the author has not experienced a magnet school classroom. The real solution is in housing patterns as Rojas suggested so all students experience diversity.

posted by: Joebigjoe | December 20, 2013  9:35am

This is a parenting and culture issue. You look at these private academies in inner cities like Chicago and NYC and how many of those kids go on to Ivy’s and other top schools and accomplish more in life than this 52 year old white guy.

Its about a longer school day, strict rules that will not be broken by either the students or the parent or parents, and they demand alot in the results. They dont mess around.

We mess around more in predominately white suburban schools with our excuses for punkish behavior than they do in these places. In my town it has been very apparent that they want the black kids that are bussed in from Hartford to graduate at all costs so the BOE can check that box and at times and for some, not all, provide a much different and lax set of standards of behavior which causes racism against them.

If they wanted the kids in the inner cities to get ahead they would build more of these private academies that will excel to the point that non-minorities will sue to get their kids into them because its where you go to get really smart and become a pillar of the community.

posted by: Mansfield2 | December 20, 2013  9:54am

Terry,  I think the real issues are jobs and income because in the end that’s what overcomes barriers to better places to live and better education.  Without good employment no one is moving from Hartford to say Avon & the like.  And it’s easy to create barriers to affordable housing with 2 acre zoning that makes housing all the more expensive.
I think you’re right about the failure of the fix since it’s something that no government can overcome with laws or programs.  And the questions Jason Rojas asks deserve an answer.
I don’t expect that people’s hearts will change but enough jobs and enough income may at least make attitude changes irrelevant.
Have a good Holiday.

posted by: ocoandasoc | December 20, 2013  12:25pm

Connecticut educators and administrators should stop trying to meet the letter of the Sheff legal decision and start trying to meet its spirit. To date, much of their effort has been to appeal or circumnavigate the decision, and the balance seems to be based on the assumption that putting a black child in a seat next to a white child for six hours each day will somehow have a beneficial effect on how well the State is able to educate him/her. Based on my conversations with him, public education—for all Connecticut public school students—would take a giant step forward if they put Mr. Rojas in charge.

posted by: BrianO | December 20, 2013  1:05pm

I agree with Manchester.  The real issue is economic.

As the only state with a constricting economy, negative job growth and—most importantly—the only state where the lowest quintile has become poorer during the past 20 years, we see our academic achievement gap growing.  Forever seduced by the glory of being the “richest state,” we think that a poor child will become more intelligent if he hangs with a rich kid.

Many concerned with the large demographic trends underlying widening wealth disparity are seeing that the issues go much deeper than going to a nice school when you are 6 years old.  Reputable research is establishing that the stress of living in poverty has deep and profound impact on anyone’s cognitive ability—especially a child. Access at birth to a stress free caregiver, whether parent or other, and being raised in an environment where betterment of one’s position is a realistic expectation for the future will provide both the environment and incentive to achieve academically.

posted by: gutbomb86 | December 20, 2013  1:31pm


Big white elephant in the room is where people chose to live and why. Is anyone here familiar with “white flight” and the concept of affordable housing? White people ran away from minorities at some point in the 20th century and have stayed away. “Out of sight, out of mind, not my problem” thinking, as well as direct racism “I don’t want my kids in school with their kids.” Terry is right in that there was no actual policy specifically segregating schools, closing their doors to people of color. But economic policy in CT has enabled/created the level of racial isolation that we see from one town to the next. And regardless of what policies are created, a lot of people will simply continue to gravitate away from people whose skin is a different color. Sad but true.

Towns, in some cases, created zoning laws to discourage people of color from moving in. Even though today a lot more people are more tolerant or at least less bigoted, those zoning laws and local police (DWB?) practices haven’t helped at all.
Property value drives all of this, IMHO. If every community had affordable housing in Connecticut, folks could get out of the cities where poverty is concentrated. There’s always resistance to public transit as well for a variety of often selfish reasons, but public transit is a huge helping hand up out of poverty for people because it provides access to jobs. The longer we deny good public transit to people outside of our urban areas, the longer we’ll continue to see racially isolated communities.

posted by: JamesBronsdon | December 20, 2013  1:55pm

And the lesson learned is exactly the same lesson learned with Obamacare - government can’t fix anything, and the unintended consequences of their fixes are often far worse than the problem that initially existed. Imposing unwanted solutions on the unwilling will only end poorly for the intended beneficiaries.

posted by: Greg | December 20, 2013  1:58pm

Re: White Flight…

Indeed, but it’s not race as much as it is economics and the simple fact that folks with the ability to move to a “nicer” place will do so.  People with decent incomes and a family to raise will be picking the West Hartfords and Watertowns instead of the Hartford’s and Waterbury’s of the world.  This is not specific to CT or any specific policy CT has enacted. any urban area nationwide has this phenomenon.  Very few people with slightly-more-than-modest means would willingly move themselves into a urban center or neighborhood with flailing schools, crime, etc regardless of race.

The CT political cocktail party crowd and their apologists can ballhoo all about how the income-acheivement-wealth-jobs gap(s) all they want, but where do they live? Where do they send their kids to school? Are they leading by example and moving into urban core neighborhood to regentrify and willingly provide this “diversity” they so love to talk about? 

Go to ANY urban school and look at the high performing kids, and i guarantee the home life is stable and the kids are held accountable by the parents; likely, similar traits as the kids in suburban schools.

posted by: Joebigjoe | December 20, 2013  2:02pm

Behavior/Poor Choices equals Poverty

Judge people on the content of their character and not the color of their skin

Those are two pretty good rules to follow in an imperfect world. The issues come in when we start to make excuses for these rules. People that follow them are sick and tired of that and sick and tired of people that are racist and don’t respect people that follow those rules. 

As for economics and white flight, I don’t totally buy that. I grew up in Hartford as a white person and stayed through high school and watched the white flight when the economy was good for all groups of people. I’m white and we all had friends that were black and hispanic (at the time 99% Puerto Rican)that we adored and cared about, because they adored and cared in return.

Then the crime starting coming in and the one story of the little old lady who was 90 and had lived there all her life with no issues being beaten up, mugged, etc would send shivers down everyones spine.  Then the guy who was walking near the Italian Fest getting shot in the head after he turned over his wallet. What had changed? The behavior of people and rather than everyone demand that behavior stop and fight back, they tried and were shouted down by the excuse mongers and in the end said screw it and moved to Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Elmwood, West Hartford, Windsor etc.

posted by: Joebigjoe | December 20, 2013  3:29pm

There is that behavior gap as well.

In the simplest terms. I can walk from dark until morning around my suburban town (with a flashlight) for 8 hours straight (hypothetical) 5 nights a week and I might get stopped by an officer at 2AM asking if everything is OK but could I do the same thing in most of the cities and be anywhere near as safe?

Heck I’m not bothering anyone but I guarantee I would get hassled to the point where all my fear and stress receptors would be on alert and I’m a big guy. There is no secret why people leave these cities. The day the good people of the cities start to really fight back and I dont mean candlelight marches or public awareness, I will be there with them.

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