Connecticut's education path forward as a question mark concept.
File via Shutterstock Credit: Composite / File / CTNewsJunkie & Shutterstock

Connecticut’s 169 individual incorporated cities and towns are at the very heart of what makes our state special and unique. They’re an old and enduring institution; the first towns were incorporated nearly four centuries ago in 1637, and as the colony and then the state expanded and changed, so too, did the towns multiply in number. But for the past century, there has been a curious stasis: our youngest town, West Haven, turned 100 years old in 2021.

This has the effect of making the towns feel as if they are fixed in amber. In many ways, our conception of what the towns are and what they do is frozen in the 1920s. Even as our world becomes more and more interconnected, the boundaries between our towns have very real and long-lasting effects on those who live there.

That was the point of the Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit, which was filed when I was a fifth-grader in the mostly-white Hartford suburb of Newington. My world, my experiences, and my future prospects were radically different from those of fourth-grader and lead plaintiff Milo Sheff of Hartford, even though we were separated at most by only a few short miles. The town line might just as well have been a wall for the mostly Black and Hispanic kids of the capital city.

The cities and towns we live in define us and shape us, for good or for ill, and in our era the most important way they affect our lives is through the school districts. After the twin shocks of deindustrialization and suburbanization radically altered urban life, surrounding towns did everything they could to isolate our cities as concentrated pockets of poverty, unemployment, and crime. Suburban towns wielded their zoning powers to keep out affordable housing, shelters, addiction treatment centers, and anything else that would let the city bleed into the suburb. 

The end result was de facto segregation, and nowhere was this more keenly felt than the schools. Sheff v. O’Neill was filed to change all that. The landmark lawsuit was based on the idea that kids should have the same educational opportunities no matter which side of the city line they lived on. In 1996, the state Supreme Court agreed, ruling that the segregation of Hartford schools from the suburbs violated the state Constitution. The long process of desegregating the schools of Greater Hartford began.

This week, after over three decades, a settlement was finally reached to end the lawsuit. The settlement will, if approved by the legislature, result in more magnet school seats available to Hartford students, as well as millions of dollars invested in existing schools and financial incentives for suburban towns to accept Hartford students enrolled in Open Choice. In short, the settlement should make it so that most, if not all, Hartford students who want to go to a magnet or a suburban school can do so.

Is that equality?

It still feels like the burden is on the students and parents of Hartford, and of all of the urban districts in the region. Suburban students have the right to go to good schools just based on where they live. They can apply for magnet schools, but the difference is that if they don’t get accepted, they have a perfectly good fallback in their town. For Hartford students, the stakes are a lot higher, and the need much greater. Increasing the number of seats is excellent, and I’m glad to see it happen.

But the town line is still a very real barrier.

It’s been that way for a long time. A century and more ago, students seeking a high-quality education traveled to the cities to find it, because the rural towns they came from might not even have had a high school. The towns paid the city to allow a small number of students to go there, which meant that Hartford Public High School would have had some students from Bloomfield, Windsor, and Wethersfield in its halls. But the city prioritized its own students, unsurprisingly, which meant that not everyone in the surrounding towns had access to that level of education.

The reverse is now true, but the issue remains. When the school district and the town are the same, towns won’t want to open their schools up to outsiders. Rich towns will do everything they can to keep the poor out, for the racist and classist fear that their schools will suffer.

Therefore, the town and the school district should not be the same.

Our towns matter. But nothing says that education has to be their exclusive domain. A real regional school district incorporating all of greater Hartford would help to turn the walls surrounding the city into lines on a map again.

The settlement of Sheff v. O’Neill is a major milestone, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to make education truly equal.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.