Sheff v. O’Neill

Date Filed: 04/27/1989


In January 2022, a final settlement agreement has been reached in Sheff v. O’Neill. If the proposed settlement is approved by both a judge and the Connecticut State Legislature, it will result in a permanent injunction enforcing the key terms of a long-term Comprehensive Choice Plan (CCP) intended to redress the consequences of decades of disinvestment and exclusion. Among other provisions, the CCP commits Connecticut to significantly expand the number of available seats for students from Black, Latinx, and/or low-income families who have been the victims of entrenched and systemic discrimination. Additionally, the agreement would require Connecticut’s Department of Education to publicly report data on educational equity and to commit to greater diversity in its hiring practices. 

Since the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the extreme racial segregation between the predominately Black, Latinx, and low-income schools in Hartford, and the overwhelmingly white and high- or middle-income schools in the surrounding suburbs violated the Connecticut State Constitution, a number of agreements between the plaintiffs and the state have resulted in the establishment of nearly 40 inter-district magnet schools, and a robust Open Choice program that allows Hartford students to transfer to suburban schools. Today, over 56% of Hartford students attend a magnet or Open Choice school.


On January 10 2020, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the Center for Children’s Advocacy, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and Horton, Dowd, Bartschi & Levesque, PC reached a new landmark agreement in Sheff v. O’Neill. Filed on behalf of Elizabeth Horton Sheff and other Black, Latinx, and white families, Sheff is a longstanding school desegregation case against the State of Connecticut that seeks to address the extreme racial and economic segregation of students in the city of Hartford in relation to its surrounding suburbs.

The new agreement adds up to 1,052 new magnet school seats, including a new middle school at the Riverside Magnet School and new prekindergarten classes at a Hartford host magnet and the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering Elementary School. Nearly 600 of these new seats are reserved for students from Hartford. Additionally, among other funding, Connecticut is furnishing $1.1 million for magnet schools to develop new themes to recruit more diverse student bodies, $800,000 to provide academic and social support for Hartford students participating in the Open Choice program, and an additional $300,000 as incentives for suburbs that agree to accept more Hartford students.  

The new agreement lasts until June 2022 and seeks to place 47.5% of Hartford students in integrated schools. Before this agreement expires, the plaintiffs and the State will develop a long-term plan to take effect in 2022 and ensure that every Hartford student has the option of attending a quality, integrated school. The State is required to set up an advisory committee made up of experienced educators to provide guidance in the implementation of the Sheff programs.

The agreement also adopts a new lottery system to ensure that the magnet schools have a diverse group of students from all income levels. It further requires more public reporting and transparency to help families make better decisions when applying to magnet and Open Choice schools.


In 1989, continuing in the tradition of Brown v. Board, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), alongside co-counsel the American Civil Liberties Union, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, attorney Wesley Horton, and others, filed the Sheff v. O’Neill complaint on behalf of Black, Latinx, and white students in Hartford, Connecticut public schools who were being denied an education equal to that of their counterparts in suburban school districts due to the racial segregation and the economic disparities between Hartford schools and those in the nearby suburbs.

In July 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court found that Hartford schools were in fact racially, ethnically, and economically isolated, in violation of Connecticut’s affirmative constitutional obligation to provide all schoolchildren with racially integrated and substantially equal educational opportunities. The Court ordered the State to immediately remedy the racial isolation endemic to schools in the area around the state capital. 

As part of the Sheff remedy, the State established a voluntary integration program and a cohort of desegregated educational opportunities. As a result, the Sheff Plaintiffs and the State have agreed to numerous reforms and new programs designed to increase racial diversity. Today, because of Sheff, over 20,000 suburban and Hartford students attend either one of the over 40 magnet schools or a suburban school through the Open Choice interdistrict transfer program.   Nearly half of Hartford’s students of color now attend racially and economically integrated schools. 

The integrated educational opportunities established because of the Sheff decision are having a lasting impact on student achievement. Children attending Sheff-related schools are outperforming their counterparts in Hartford schools and performing extremely well in relation to all other Connecticut students. The “graduation rates of Hartford students attending the magnet high schools exceed the rates of many suburban high schools. Further, research demonstrates that students attending integrated schools also will develop better critical thinking and analytical skills, and that diverse schools are better than high-poverty schools at counteracting the negative effects of poverty.”


Yet, despite these significant gains, much work remains to ensure equal and integrated educational opportunities for all students in Hartford and across the country. For example, as the Brookings Institute found in 2012, Hartford-area housing costs and zoning laws are frustrating efforts to give more poor students and students of color access to high-scoring schools. Meanwhile, nationally, although Brown struck a fatal blow to legalized racial segregation, stark racial and economic disparities in education remain as many students of color—including about 30% of African-American and 22% of Latino students in Connecticut—still attend schools that are 90-100% minority. Despite the success of Sheff, the stubborn nature of inequality requires that we all work to ensure full financial support for the thriving Sheff remedial programs, expand the Sheff programs, solve problems of systematic inequality and concerns about affordable housing, and remain vigilant in the face of increasing racial isolation.


A series of agreements in the case have led to Sheff-related integration programs that allow students to apply to attend quality, integrated Interdistrict Magnet Schools or the Open Choice program, which lets Hartford students transfer to suburban schools. The plaintiffs (Black, Latinx, and white students, and their parents, from Hartford and the suburbs) and the defendants (Connecticut State officials) have reached a new agreement in the ongoing Sheff litigation that will last until June 30, 2022. The new agreement includes:

  1. 1. Significant Expansion of the Sheff Voluntary Interdistrict Programs
      • Up to 1,052 new Magnet seats (with nearly 600 seats reserved for Hartford students)
      • $1,100,000 in funding for new school themes to attract students and increase applications at certain Magnet schools.
      • $190,000 to support the achievement of Open Choice students.
      • $300,000 for suburban districts that increase the number of Open Choice seats for Hartford students by 20%.
      • $800,000 over two years for educational advocates to support Open Choice students.
  2. 2. Accountability for Diversity & Inclusion within the Choice System
      • A commitment to measurable racial diversity in magnet schools.
      • Corrective Action Plans for schools that are not meeting the diversity goals.
      • A new lottery assignment system that ensures that magnet schools are socioeconomically diverse.
      • State officials will work with Open Choice schools to develop a “statement of principles” defining their mission and commitments going forward.
  3. 3. Transparency & Accessibility of Information to Help Families Make Choices
      • Publicly available data, broken down by Hartford and suburban students, to understand the experiences of all students in the Sheff Voluntary Interdistrict Programs and help address any inequalities within the programs.
      • A campaign to inform and recruit underrepresented populations to Sheff programs and help with lottery applications.
      • Moving the parent information center to a more accessible location.
      • Real time application information offered through a simplified application system.
  4. 4. Long-Term Regional Planning for Success
      • An Advisory Committee, informed by input from the community, will review Sheff programs and make recommendations for their improvement.
      • Connecticut is required to develop a long-term plan to ensure the sustainability of the Sheff Voluntary Interdistrict Programs, including strategies to provide a seat for every student who applies through the lottery, to increase teacher diversity, and to address racial disparities in student discipline and academic achievement.

To read a complete list of the new agreement’s benefits, please refer to the related documents.

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