Sheff v. O’Neill

Date Filed: 04/27/1989

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.