On Jan. 27, the State of Connecticut reached its latest settlement of more than 30 years of litigation of Sheff v. O’Neill.
The landmark 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court decision found that Hartford Public Schools have failed to provide students with the equal educational opportunity required by the state constitution, but the court allowed the legislature the opportunity to craft a remedy.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the 2022 settlement – which still needs approval by the legislature — would require the state to expand available seats in the Open Choice program, expand seats in interdistrict magnet schools available to Hartford students, and establish new programs including an early literacy preschool program and a technical high school magnet operated by Goodwin University.
The new settlement also promises to appropriate $12.6 million to restructure and market school choice programs, to direct an additional $6.8 million to athletic programs, $7.8 million to enhance extracurricular programs and $48.7 million to fund renovating facilities. The settlement would also gradually increase the level of financial support for magnet schools.
In an interview with CT Examiner on Friday, Martha Stone, an attorney for the students, said she was cautiously optimistic.
“Once the legislature approves it, I’ll be fully optimistic,” said Stone.
This latest settlement is by no means the first in the Sheff v. O’Neill saga. After an initial Hartford Superior Court decision favoring the state was overturned in 1996, a settlement was reached in 2003 that set a goal of placing 30 percent of Hartford minority students in “reduced-isolation school settings” by 2007.
After that goal was not met, a second settlement was reached in 2008 that called for the construction of magnet schools and expansion of the Open Choice, a program that allows a limited number of urban children to attend suburban schools.
Then, in 2020, a third settlement was reached, adding 202 new magnet school seats and made the application process for choice programs more transparent for Hartford-area families.
The results of these various settlements have consistently fallen short of providing Hartford students with equal educational opportunities, but Stone said that unlike in previous settlements, in this case there is a concrete plan with funding attached.
“Not only is the state agreeable to meet the demand, but it’s being backed up by a concrete plan and some funding to implement the plan,” she said. “If they do not meet the demand we can go back to court at any time.”
Stone said that she and her team will be monitoring whether the state is getting closer to meeting its “diversity goals, socio-economic goals, racial goals, marketing goals,” as well as the specifics promised in the agreement such as opening up new magnet school programs.
“We are not going away, not on this one,” she said.
Stone said that her team will be using test scores as one measure of success.
During the 2018-2019 school year, Capitol Region Education Council interdistrict magnet schools still underperformed compared to the rest of the state. For example, only 28.7 percent of students at the CREC schools met the benchmark on college readiness exams.
But Hartford Public Schools performed significantly worse, with just 17.4 percent of students meeting the benchmark on college readiness exams.
Statewide, 42.6 percent of students meet the benchmark on college readiness exams.
“The racial and socioeconomic isolation that so troubled the court in Sheff a quarter century ago is a reflection of the profound disparities that still remain among municipalities in Connecticut, and no Sheff settlement can offer a perfect answer to that fundamental challenge,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said in a statement after the settlement was announced. “That said, this agreement represents important progress because it will open up thousands of seats for Hartford students in the years ahead and responds to the demand of so many Hartford students and their families for placements in the inter-district magnet schools and Open Choice placements offering diverse educational settings.”
Barriers to success
But the success of the latest settlement still requires the cooperation of suburban school districts, and a willingness to accept more Open Choice students from Hartford.
According to the agreement, by the 2023-24 school year the state will fund as many as 783 additional choice seats, and by 2028-29, there will be 2,737 additional seats.
During the 2019-2020 school year, Hartford sent 2,242 students out through the Open Choice program.
This goal may be the hardest for the state to meet given the fact that in other parts of the state – including Danbury and Norwalk as well as New London – the same program has been delayed or cancelled in the face of resistance from suburban districts.
According to Stone, the legislature will be considering increases in reimbursements rates for suburban districts that accept Open Choice students as an incentive for districts to participate.
In 2019-2020, the state spent $11 million on the Hartford Open Choice program, between $3,000 and $8,000 per student.
That funding, according to previous reporting by CT Examiner, is given to districts after local budgets are finalized and is largely free of oversight from the state.
Although the Sheff v. O’Neill settlements are focused on Hartford and its suburbs, similar disparities of opportunity exist in low-income areas across the state, including in New London, Danbury, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport and Stamford.
“The challenge to the Governor and the legislature is to implement the Sheff v. O’Neill model in other places,” said Stone.
According to the Department of Education, the Regional Educational Service Centers – LEARN, CES, EASTCONN and ACES – that allow for special education services to be provided on a regional level across the state are the first step toward replicating the Hartford interdistrict magnet school model. Open Choice programs, similar to one in the Hartford region, have been implemented in Bridgeport and New Haven.
These various models of interdistrict collaboration and steps toward offering equal opportunities to all Connecticut students have been used as a model for other states, according to the State Department of Education.
“The Sheff case and its outcomes have framed nation-leading best practices as a pathway to integrate schools and provide our students with excellent and equitable education opportunities,” according to a statement provided by the State Department of Education to the CT Examiner.