In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Hartford’s school system was “racially, ethnically and economically” segregated, and ordered the state Legislature and executive branch to find a solution.

A year later, the Legislature responded by providing money for programs intended to address the court’s ruling, not only in Hartford, but in other towns with similar problems.

But five years after the Legislature’s response, the percentage of minority and poor students in Hartford remains virtually the same as before. Minorities comprised 94.3 percent of the students in Hartford’s school system in 2000-2001, virtually unchanged from the 95.1 percent in 1995-1996.

Now, on April 16, the plaintiffs in the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case return to ask the court to prescribe a remedy where they say the other two branches have failed.

At issue is the speed and scope with which the court, and Hartford’s schoolchildren, should expect the state to address a segregation problem almost a century in the making, and to reverse a nationwide school resegregation trend that intensified in the 1990s.

The case originated in 1989 when 18 Hartford area schoolchildren sued the state, claiming that their education was not equal to those of surrounding suburban towns. One of those children, Milo Sheff, lent his name to the case which was brought against former Gov. William A. O’Neill.

Sheff v. O’Neill is considered a landmark decision because the Connecticut Supreme Court sided 4-3 with the plaintiffs and abandoned U.S. common law doctrine, deciding the case on de facto principles instead of de jure, and ordered an interschool district solution. De facto segregation occurs as a result of economic or social reasons, for example, instead of by state action. In Sheff, the Supreme Court explicitly ruled that Connecticut was not guilty of de jure segregation, or segregation arising from state action.

Moreover, they accepted the plaintiffs’ use of the Connecticut Constitution to do so, instead of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

“No other state or federal court has gone that far,” said John Brittain, a former attorney for the plaintiffs. He left the case in 1999 to become dean of Texas Southern Law School.

In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to order remedies for de facto segregation, and has repeatedly — most famously in Milliken v. Bradley — struck down interdistrict remedies, saying that the cases went beyond its jurisdiction.

The jury remains out on what New Britain Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma will decide. In 1998, the plaintiffs pressed the same motion for compliance claim as they are now, and Aurigemma ruled that they did not wait a reasonable amount of time to allow the state to act. While two years was clearly not enough time, six is ambiguous.

“We’re not sure how this will play out,” a spokesman for the Department of Education, Tom Murphy, said.

“It’s good that the plaintiffs continue to use the courts to continue to put pressure on the governor and the Legislature,” said Dean Pagani, a spokesman for Gov. John Rowland. “[School desegregation]’s an ongoing process; it’s an issue that will never go away completely.”

The state’s initial response showed promise. Less than a month after the ruling, Rowland created a committee to explore options for complying with the decision.

By January, the committee published their recommendations, and roughly five months later the Legislature passed state Statute 97-290, which outlines eight specific initiatives designed to remedy the segregation and inequality in the Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport school systems.

In 1997-1998, the state poured $200 million in increased funds into those initiatives, and in 1998-1999, it added $93 million.

Since then, although funding has increased to bring magnet schools up to full capacity, there has not been new money to expand the programs, despite high demand.

For a 2- to 3-year-old class opening up this fall at the Montessori Magnet in Hartford there are 350 applications for 35 spaces. At the new University of Hartford Magnet, set to open in West Hartford this fall, there are roughly 1,600 applicants — about half from Hartford and half from the suburbs — for 400 spots.

“We’re basically claiming that the model that the state is proposing might be appropriate, but that the scale of the state’s response is very weak. Almost six years after the state’s Supreme Court decision we have small programs that only reach 5 percent of black and Latino students in Hartford,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Phil Tegeler of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union.

“If you look at the programs, some of them are funding existing enrollment, but it’s not the same as growing the programs to reach more kids. For the last three years the budget office has not allowed any funding to go out for expansion,” said Cam Staples, a Democratic representative from New Haven and chairman of the House education committee. Staples said that he is frustrated with the lack of support to enlarge the programs coming from the governor’s office and some legislators.

“All of it starts with the governor’s proposed budget,” he said.

Rowland’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2002-2003 marginally expands only one of the Department of Education’s three flagship programs for combating segregation and inequality.

Public school choice, in which students from Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport can choose to go to a suburban school, received a $1.6 million increase.

Magnet schools, by far the biggest initiative, got an added $12.2 million, but that only serves to bring certain schools up to capacity. It does not fund or plan for new ones.

“When you have waiting lists, why not plan for new schools?” asked plaintiffs’ attorney Derek Douglas of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Finally, the governor continues to flat-fund the interdistrict cooperative grant program, available to help suburban and rural students connect with urban children through after-school programs, joint field trips and other projects.

“The problem is a lack of urgency in terms of the need to address a statement from the Supreme Court, saying that children are being denied their constitutional rights,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Dennis Parker, also of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Officials that defend the state’s response sing a different tune. They see a “good faith effort,” as state Sen. Tom Herlihy describes it, to correct a massive problem amid growing budget deficits.

“I think the magnet school expansion in particular is representative of our efforts to address the [Sheff v. O’Neill] decision and add diversity to suburban schools that didn’t have it, and to urban schools that didn’t have it. Obviously, we have not put a significant dent in minority enrollment numbers in the inner cities, but that was almost an impossible challenge,” said Herlihy, the ranking Republican member of the Senate education committee. He represents the suburban and rural towns of Hartland, Granby, East Granby, Canton, Simsbury and Avon.

“Yes, the governor believes that the state is doing all that it can do. Again, you have to look at this in the context of the total budget for the state,” Pagani said. “You can’t put all your resources in one area; even if you would like to you can’t do that.”

But the plaintiffs and those who fight for more dollars in the Legislature don’t buy the deficit story.

“Well, we’ve had surpluses for five or six years [until now],” Staples said, adding that “in the scheme of things, investments in education are the best investments you can make long term.”

On the front-lines, those who work at the schools and at the Regional Educational Service Centers, or RESCs, share a general consensus that what the state has done so far is working, but it requires significantly more funding to begin to seriously tackle the problem. RESCs are publicly created groups that administer educational programs in their respective areas, including some magnet schools, public school choice and the interdistrict initiatives.

In New Haven, for example, 100 students go to the interregional Wintergreen Magnet in Hamden, and 550 suburban students come into town to magnet schools that were originally intradistrict schools before they began to receive state aid and were converted to interdistrict as a result of Sheff.

“Proportionally, how large is that?” asked Peter Young, the executive director of Area Cooperative Educational Services, the New Haven area RESC. “I mean, you start adding up the school districts in this area, you realize that the percentage isn’t all that great. On the other hand, the percentage is so much better than at the start of the program.”

When asked if the governor’s funding proposal for magnet schools was enough, Executive Director Bruce Douglas of Capitol Region Education Center, the Hartford area RESC, was cautious.

“That’s a major effort on the part of the governor and the state Department of Education,” he said, referring to the extra $12.2 million. “It goes a long way, but it’s not sufficient. We do need probably three or four more schools.”

At $50 to 70 million a pop, and considering that “the Legislature of the state now pays 100 percent of the cost of a magnet school facility,” according to Murphy — that’s a hefty price tag.

Nevertheless, to some, reversing longstanding racial, ethnic and economic segregation and school inequality goes beyond simple dollars and cents to what should have been done long ago.

“It’s been one excuse after another,” Brittain said, “The state Legislature has never had the political will to correct the problem.

“I think it’s the broader education of America about race. I guess it’s just last year that [Yale] woke up to see that Mr. Berkeley had owned slaves. These are all the continuing legacies and remnants of an earlier era of America.”

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