Desegregation case settled but advocates stay vigilant

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Hartford, Conn., families and education advocates earlier this month reached a settlement with local and state officials in a 30-year-old desegregation lawsuit, Sheff v. O'Neill. While the agreement adds more than 1,000 new slots in public magnet schools across the region, it comes up short on resolving racial isolation in Hartford’s traditional neighborhood schools. Following the resolution, civil rights activists and union leaders warned against complacency in the fight for equity for students struggling with poverty.

children getting on the school bus

While the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation, stark disparities remain in Connecticut's public education system. About 30 percent of African-American and 22 percent of Latino youth still attend schools where at least 90 percent of students are people of color.

The additional seats in the two-year agreement will be augmented with $2.3 million in state funding aimed at further desegregating the region's magnet schools across several school districts.

However the new seats hardly cover the more than 10,000 annual applications received by the state, regional and local education agencies that manage so-called public school choice programs. And adding new magnet school slots does nothing to support Hartford's traditional neighborhood schools—or the families whose children continue to attend them.

"Now is not the time to let down our guard in the fight to fund our future," says Hartford Federation of Teachers President Andrea Johnson (below), who taught in Hartford for four decades. “Instead, we need to resist disinvestment and neglect—harmful policies that go hand-in-hand with segregation and isolation. Our city's neighborhood schools deserve access to the same resources in this settlement.”

demonstrators holding giant cancelled checks

Despite three decades of gains in educational opportunity, much work remains to ensure equity for students, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the plaintiffs in Sheff. Housing costs and zoning laws, for example, still frustrate efforts to give more students of color access to high-quality schools.

"This agreement is an important step forward in our longstanding effort to end the racial and economic segregation of the Hartford area school system,” says LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross. "We look forward to working with state officials to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan to guarantee that all Hartford students have equal access to a quality education.”

The stubborn nature of inequality requires that the lawsuit's plaintiffs and education advocates keep pushing to fully fund all public schools, address housing costs and resist racial isolation.

"The agreement is the result of the decades-long commitment by parents, students, educators and advocates in the Sheff movement," says AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel. "They refuse to give up on access to quality integrated schools for every child in the Hartford area. We all must remain vigilant to open doors for more families to better learning opportunities," adds Hochadel, who previously taught science and physics in the state's technical high schools.

The movement began in 1989 when parents sued then-Gov. William O'Neill over persistent racial and economic segregation faced by students in Hartford Public Schools. Elizabeth Horton Sheff, one of the original plaintiffs, articulated their commitment after the settlement was announced. She said that advocating for high-quality, integrated education is about equity for all students, "no matter the color of their skin or whether they are rich or poor."

For union members and our allies in the Sheff movement, that means true social justice for all Hartford's families remains a shared dream yet to be realized.

[Annette Licitra, Matt O’Connor]