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Panel: Despite Sheff v. O’Neill, school segregation has not eased

by Richard Veilleux - November 28, 2006

Ellen Ash Peters, the retired chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court and author of the 1996 Sheff v. O'Neill ruling that racial isolation in Hartford's schools was unconstitutional, let more than 100 people attending a symposium on the ruling in on a little secret: The court purposely left it up to the state legislature to implement change.

Retired Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters of the State Supreme Court, author of the ruling in the Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case, speaks during a symposium Nov. 9. At right is Attorney Wesley Horton.
Retired Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters of the State Supreme Court, author of the ruling in the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case, speaks during a symposium Nov. 9. At right is Attorney Wesley Horton.
Photo by Spencer Sloan

"We made a decision to issue a mandate for cooperation rather than confrontation," said Peters, during a Nov. 9 symposium at the law school marking the 10th anniversary of Sheff v. O'Neill.

"It was our opinion that courts rarely succeed in enforcing decisions, and we would be even less [successful] ordering the legislature to enforce it."

Philip Tegeler, an attorney on the case for more than 15 years and a panelist at the symposium, said that is the main reason little has been accomplished since then.

"The biggest mistake the court made was to refer the case to the General Assembly, and it continues to be the problem," he said .

"There is a lack of African American and Latino political power, and it's compounded by the enormous power of suburban legislators. Sheff deferred to that power, rather than confront it directly."

The symposium, organized and sponsored by the law school's Black Law Students Association, brought together some of the people who were involved in the landmark case from the beginning.

These included plaintiff   Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of named plaintiff Milo Sheff; and Wesley Horton, a 1970 graduate of the UConn law school and lead attorney in the school finance case, Horton v. Meskill.

John Brittain, a former UConn professor of law and lead attorney in the case, moderated the panels.

Tegeler's comments drew an objection from State Rep. Andrew Fleishman (D-West Hartford), who joined him on a panel discussing past and current legislative efforts. But most of the speakers agreed with Tegeler's overall message - that despite the court order, segregation in Hartford's schools has not eased.

James Thompson, an educational consultant and former principal of Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School, said there is at least one bright spot: people nationwide are talking about the racial makeup of urban schools.

"We have not improved very much," he said.

"But we have built magnet schools, and most important, this case has opened up the discussion. We have forced government to come to the table."

Martha Stone, director of the Center for Children's Advocacy, said that isn't enough.

"We haven't come far enough," she said, toward reaching a goal, agreed to in 2003 by all parties to the litigation, to have at least 30 percent of public school minority students in Hartford educated in racially desegregated settings by 2007.

"More needs to be done quicker and faster," she added, "for the sake of all children in Connecticut."

Using different ways to count students, the plaintiffs in the case say only 14 percent of Hartford's children are now in desegregated schools, while state officials contend the number is closer to 21 percent. Neither figure approaches the 30 percent goal.

Wesley Horton, who continues to work on Sheff v. O'Neill, said he had been meeting with state officials, trying to work out a successor agreement.

He said there are options other than extending the agreement, but that none is particularly satisfactory.

Extending the agreement is unfortunate, because "it puts things in the long run," he said, but that is better than nothing.

Horton Sheff said it's a never ending struggle.

"But there are things we can do, working together, to help provide equal educational opportunities," she said.

"Mostly, we have to keep the question alive and out in the community."

George Coleman, interim commissioner of education, said the state has been working to improve conditions.

"I resent the charge that nothing has been done," he said. He cited the opening of nine magnet schools that could ultimately handle more than 4,000 students; an Open Choice Program that has increased the number of students studying in suburban towns from 819 to 1,074 in the four years it has existed; and the distribution of more than $2.5 million in interdistrict cooperative grants designed to offset the cost of tuition in the suburbs.

Tegeler, now director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, compared what has ensued since the Sheff v. Neill case to the 15-year struggle that followed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

"The bright spot to going slow," he said, "is that eventually the Connecticut Supreme Court will take it back, and issue some real orders, like they should have done in the first place."

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