Lamont and Tong Seek Legislative Authorization to End 32 Years of Sheff v. O’Neill Litigation

Governor Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong announced on Thursday that they will seek legislative approval for a historic investment in educational opportunities for Hartford students that will end more than 30 years of litigation and court oversight in the Sheff v. O’Neill case.

The agreement will require presentation first to the Connecticut Superior Court for preliminary approval, then to the Connecticut General Assembly for its approval, and then back to the court for final approval. If approved, the agreement would avoid the potential for a court-ordered plan and keep overall decisions about educational policy and finance in the hands of those elected to do so – the governor and legislature.

A previous agreement reached in January 2020 resulted in approximately 202 new magnet school seats and additional capacity for Hartford students, as well as significant improvements in the application process and transparency for Hartford region families. That agreement required further negotiation of a final settlement to meet demand for choice school seats for all Hartford students who want them, and an end to court jurisdiction. If finalized, this agreement would achieve those goals.

“Every child deserves access to an education that provides them the best opportunity at the starting line of life, regardless of their zip code, family income level, race, or creed,” Governor Lamont said in a release on Thursday. “The skills needed to succeed as an adult are best obtained during the critical years when a child begins their development. The parents, students, and education advocates who have been fighting this case for these many years are to be commended for their unyielding efforts and unbreakable focus on doing what is best for the children of Hartford. This agreement will make school choice programs for families in the Hartford region more accessible and transparent as we continue our work to improve quality and equity for students in all schools. I thank everyone for their hard work in getting all involved parties to this point and bringing us closer to our shared goal of equal access to a quality education.”

“This historic agreement would end over 30 years of litigation and court oversight while ensuring Hartford students have the opportunity to attend excellent schools in diverse settings,” Attorney General Tong said. “I want to thank the attorneys in my office both past and present – Darren Cunningham, Erik Lohr, Henry Salton, Ralph Urban, and especially Joe Rubin – who dedicated years of their careers to achieving this resolution. I also want to thank Elizabeth Horton Sheff, who has been leading this fight for Hartford students since I was in school. Generations of Hartford students will have brighter futures because she had the courage to stand up and demand more for her son and her community.”

“The Connecticut State Department of Education and State Board of Education remain committed to delivering excellence and equity in education,” CT Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said. “The implementation of this settlement will ensure the continuance of our unwavering dedication to bringing students together in diverse environments and to expanding access to high-quality, educational options that reflect the multicultural world in which we live.”

“The racial and socioeconomic isolation that so troubled the court in Sheff a quarter century ago is a reflection of the profound disparities that still remain among municipalities in Connecticut, and no Sheff settlement can offer a perfect answer to that fundamental challenge,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said. “That said, this agreement represents important progress because it will open up thousands of seats for Hartford students in the years ahead and responds to the demand of so many Hartford students and their families for placements in the inter-district magnet schools and Open Choice placements offering diverse educational settings.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that the racial and ethnic isolation of Hartford school children violated the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a substantially equal educational opportunity and access to an unsegregated education environment. The court directed the legislature and executive branch to implement remedial measures. Since then, the parties in the case have entered into a series of agreements, with a further court order issued in 2017.

Since 1996, the legislature and executive branch have created an extensive Choice interdistrict magnet school system, as well as additional voluntary school desegregation measures that have resulted in a major reduction in the racial isolation of Hartford students. As a result of these measures, more than half of Hartford students, and more than 20,000 Hartford and suburban students, collectively, are enrolled in a Sheff School Choice program in the Greater Hartford Region.

Highlights of the settlement include:

  • To the extent necessary to meet demand for Choice seats by Hartford students, the State will increase available Choice seats over the number of available seats in 2020-21 by up to 783 seats by 23-24, up to 1,863 seats by 25-26, and up to 2,737 seats by 28-29.
  • By 2025-26, the state expects to meet entry grade demand for Hartford students for Choice schools operated by Hartford and others.
  • By 2028-29, the state expects to meet demand for Hartford students for all grades in Choice schools.
  • The state will continue to make ongoing adjustments to continue to meet demand as it changes over the years, with continuing measurable assessments of demand in 2031-32 and every three years thereafter.
  • Ongoing court jurisdiction will end with the approval of this agreement.  The state will be subject to an injunction for 10 years requiring its continued compliance with the material terms of the agreement, but there will no ongoing court involvement unless there is a claim of material noncompliance.
  • State funding will include the costs of all additional seats identified above, to the extent needed to meet demand.  In addition to added seats at existing Choice magnet schools, the State will provide financial incentives for suburban Open Choice schools to accept additional Hartford students up to a goal of 450 new seats over existing Open Choice seats.  Open Choice is a voluntary program that enables Hartford students to attend suburban schools, and for suburban students to attend Hartford schools.
  • In addition, new or expanded programs include the following:
    • a dual language magnet at Dwight-Bellizzi School in Hartford, beginning with PK4 and phasing-in through 8th grade year-by-year.
    • a new Goodwin University early literacy preschool Choice program in a renovated building in Rocky Hill.
    • a new Goodwin University technical high school magnet, focused on advanced manufacturing, in a renovated building on the Goodwin property for 9th-12th grade students.
    • addition of early college programming at Connecticut IB (International Baccalaureate) Academy in East Hartford with expansion to capacity.
    • retheming and expansion of Two Rivers and Civic Leadership magnet schools to focus on computer programming and coding with partnerships with Amazon and Microsoft.
    • implementation of a half day program at Goodwin University for Hartford and suburban students for Early College Advanced Manufacturing Pathway™ (ECAMP™) model to expand opportunities for dual-credit programming.
    • expansion of pre-k programs in existing magnet schools.

Because certain current Choice schools are not presently meeting diversity and reduced racial isolation goals, the agreement also provides for $12.6 million to operators over 3 years, beginning in FY23, to reformulate those schools to make them sufficiently attractive to appeal to a more diverse student body.

Among other things, those efforts will include:

  • $6.8 million to provide or increase athletics at magnets.
  • $7.8 million for enhanced extracurricular offerings at magnets.
  • Continuing audits and enhancements for schools that are not yet meeting diversity goals.
  • Additional financial and other supports to help all Open Choice and magnet schools become more welcoming and inclusive to all students.

In total, the agreement commits $1.24 million in additional magnet school funding for fiscal year 2022, with commitments increasing to $32 million annually by fiscal year 2032. Capital costs associated with renovation of the new magnet schools are estimated at $48.7 million.