Why Connecticut should think twice about asking to ‘end Sheff’

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In the wake of the recent CCJEF v. Rell trial court decision on school finance, we should take a moment to consider the continuing benefits of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill decision for low income children in our state, and the importance of keeping this crucial legal mandate in place.  The City of Buffalo’s experience with court-ordered integration 30 years ago is a reminder of how these independent constitutional rulings can maintain political will for reforms on behalf of low-income children that would otherwise get lost in the political process.

In 1985, four years into implementation of a federal court desegregation order, the Buffalo, NY, school integration plan was hailed as a national model.  In a 1985 article, The New York Times quoted the Buffalo superintendent of schools observing that “the best thing that’s happened to Buffalo is court-ordered desegregation.  We’ve restored confidence in Buffalo public schools.” The Times noted that integration had worked in Buffalo “because parents and teachers received a major role in designing the city’s 22 magnet schools; because millions of dollars in extra Federal funds were available to make the magnet schools special, and because a Federal judge brandished a court order that kept things moving.”

But where is Buffalo today?  Its schools have re-segregated, many whites and middle class families have fled the system, and only a small handful of magnet schools remain.  A 2014 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project noted that in 1989, under the court-ordered integration plan, only 5 percent of black students attended intensely segregated schools (i.e., schools with 90-100 percent nonwhite enrollment), but that figure jumped to 44 percent in 2010, with the average white student attending a school that was 85 percent white.  By 2012, 70 percent of schools in Buffalo were segregated.

Buffalo’s failure to maintain its progress traces to a 1995 decision by the defendants in Arthur v. Nyquist  to end court supervision of the case.  In federal court parlance, this was a motion to seek “unitary status,” where the school district argues that the “vestiges of discrimination” have been eliminated in the district.

What happened in the years after that ill-advised motion in Buffalo is a cautionary tale for the State of Connecticut, as Gov. Dannel Malloy and his lawyers continue to engage in loose talk of “ending” court oversight of Sheff, even though less than half of Hartford students have been given access to quality, integrated education.

According to the Civil Rights Project, in the early 1990s, Buffalo was experiencing fiscal stress and population loss and wanted to cut funding for the desegregation plan.  Despite pleas from city school officials, the courts terminated Buffalo’s desegregation order in 1995, finding that the city and the district had complied sufficiently with the court order and achieved substantial desegregation.  The school board at that time acknowledged the incomplete status of school desegregation in Buffalo and expressed concern over the loss of city funding.

Following the end of court oversight in Buffalo, “funds were cut, programs were closed, desegregation goals were abandoned, and segregation deepened.” The district’s financial issues – intensified by the declared unitary status – resulted in the elimination of many special features of the magnets that enabled Buffalo to achieve considerable integration. After the magnet plan was dissolved, along with its specific desegregation goals and recruitment strategies to ensure school diversity, segregation in the Buffalo metropolitan area increased notably.

The lesson for Hartford and the state of Connecticut should be to accept the Sheff court orders as a crucial source of accountability, enforcement, and budget stability, as we work together to bring equal educational opportunity to all Hartford children.  To precipitously exit from court oversight would remove the powerful political will that the state constitution – and our third branch of government – bring to the table.

Another important lesson from Buffalo is the failure of the state and region to aggressively address housing segregation in the region at the same time as it pursued school integration. While Buffalo pursued school integration in the 1980s, it basically left its segregated housing patterns in place – so that when the court orders ended in 1995, ongoing white flight intensified, metropolitan sprawl accelerated, and school segregation increased across the region.

This second lesson is also applicable to Hartford.  For the past two decades, the Connecticut state housing agencies have continued to undermine school integration in the region by adding low income housing in segregated, high poverty school zones, and failing to forcefully demand affordable housing in low poverty suburban districts.  This disconnect continues to the present day, in spite of admonitions by HUD and the federal Department of Education that state housing and education departments should work together to promote integration.

The Hartford and Buffalo stories are not identical (the Buffalo case was a city-only remedy, based on a federal finding of intentional segregation, and Hartford’s Sheff case involves a regional remedy based on a state constitutional right to equal education), but these cities’ stories are also similar in many ways.  Both cities have long struggled with patterns of segregation by race and income, both came under court order to desegregate schools, and utilized magnets to achieve substantial integration.

Given what happened in Buffalo following the release of the court order amid fiscal concerns, the state should think twice about seeking to end court oversight of Sheff, and the progress that is likely to come undone as a result.  In the 15 years since full implementation began, Sheff programs have made huge improvements in educational quality and outcomes for both Hartford and suburban children, and the overall Sheff system has brought our region closer together.  But if school integration in Hartford becomes just another budget item, rather than a continuing constitutional mandate enforceable in court, it will inevitably lose out to more immediate, short term budget priorities, and we will never see the promise of Sheff v. O’Neill extended to all Hartford students.

Philip Tegeler is the Executive Director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, based in Washington, DC, and helps to coordinate the Sheff Movement coalition; Jenna Tomasello is a Buffalo-area native and Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum, based in Washington, D.C.

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