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.