Sheff v. O’Neill

Date Filed: 04/27/1989

This year, 2014, marks the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the filing of Sheff v. O’Neill, two landmark cases brought by LDF aimed at eliminating segregation in education. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its sweeping decision in Brown, in which LDF successfully argued that state-enforced racial segregation in public schools is “inherently unequal.” In 1989, continuing in the tradition of Brown, LDF, alongside co-counsel the American Civil Liberties Union, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, attorney Wesley Horton, and others, filed the Sheff complaint on behalf of students in Hartford, Connecticut public schools who were being denied an education equal to that of their counterparts in suburban school districts due to segregation and 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 contravention of Connecticut’s affirmative constitutional obligation to provide all schoolchildren with racially integrated and substantially equal educational opportunities. While the State had never intentionally segregated the students in its public school system, the Court ordered the State to immediately correct Hartford’s de facto segregation by remedying the racial isolation endemic to schools in the area around the state capital. 

Nearly two decades after the Sheff decision, the efforts of LDF, co-counsel, and the plaintiffs to enforce the remedy are beginning to bear fruit. As part of the Sheff remedy, the State established a voluntary integration program and a cohort of desegregated educational opportunities. A recent analysis of the programs shows that, by the end of this year, 44% of Hartford’s students of color, about 9,000 students, will be attending racially and economically integrated schools. Nearly 20,000 children across 22 school districts in the greater Hartford-area are being served by the voluntary integration program. Also rising is the number of innovative, nationally recognized, award-winning regional magnet schools that help to free students from racial isolation and poverty. To date, there are 39 Sheff-created magnet schools, with more magnet schools planned for the coming years.

The quality, integrated educational benefits remedying the state constitutional violations identified in the Sheff decision are having a demonstrable and lasting impact on student achievement. Indeed, children attending Sheff-related schools are outperforming their counterparts in Hartford school and performing extremely well in relation to all other Connecticut students.

Meanwhile, “…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 and dozens of school districts persist in resisting decades-old desegregation orders. As the nation celebrates the real and hard won victories of Brown and Sheff, we also must examine these disheartening realities. The stubborn nature of inequality requires that we all work to ensure full financial support for the thriving Sheff remedial programs, find solutions to resolve concerns around affordable housing, and remain vigilant in the face of persistent injustices.