The plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit have not often seen eye-to-eye with the defendants in the case over the past 18 years. Now, however, the parties have come together and agreed on a five-year plan to reduce racial segregation and improve educational opportunities for all Hartford children, as required by the Supreme Court's 1996 decision.
But there's a new obstacle to progress for Hartford's schoolchildren: The General Assembly hasn't taken action to approve the deal. We urge the legislature to take up the Sheff settlement at its special session this week.
What is being lost in the conversation at the Capitol is recognition that the Supreme Court ruled against the state in 1996, and tasked the legislature with partial responsibility to ensure a successful remedy.
The plaintiffs have come together with the Department of Education and the entire executive branch to propose an achievable solution. Connecticut's elected representatives should now do their part.
Some legislators seem to believe that because the initial remedial plan did not reach its goals, there is little sense in approving a new deal.
The plaintiffs are tremendously dissatisfied with the state's inability to implement the first remedial plan. But the current proposal was carefully crafted to learn from the state's past mistakes. It is more flexible than the first plan; provides for improved planning and coordination; and eliminates a number of financial barriers that dissuaded suburban districts from participating.
The new proposal also builds on the limited success that the first plan did have, by continuing to support those magnet schools that have become successfully integrated settings and popular choices for parents - as evidenced by the long waiting lists for those schools.
Other legislators have been distracted by the public spat between Hartford authorities and state officials over school financing.
Hartford, like any other town in the state, will continue to have periodic disagreements with the state over how much money it is owed for schools. But Hartford's position does not affect the chances that the Sheff remedy will succeed. The city filed a submission with the Superior Court just a few weeks ago expressly stating that it would not undermine an agreement between the plaintiffs and defendants, and that Hartford "will continue to be involved integrally with the efforts to reduce racial and economic isolation for its minority students."
The General Assembly's delay has serious consequences, as time is already slipping by and the start of a new school year has arrived.
If the legislature does not take this up until the next regular session - which starts in February 2008 - it will have missed not only the 2007-08 school year, but also the window to plan for the 2008-09 school year. The legislature's inaction will force Hartford's schoolchildren to tread water for an additional two years, waiting for a remedy they were promised in 1996.
Inaction may well have other consequences. The plaintiffs have already returned to Superior Court and have asked for a hearing to implement a court-ordered remedy. If the General Assembly cannot partner with the plaintiffs and the defendants to reduce segregation in the schools, it risks giving up its cooperative role in the process.
And although the plaintiffs have proposed a settlement with the defendants in the interest of a solution that all parties could get behind, we continue to believe that more can and should be done - and this is what we will ask the court to order.
Most important, the General Assembly's delay in approving the settlement deprives Hartford's neediest children of the educational opportunities they absolutely must have.
As Chief Justice Ellen Peters wrote in ruling for the Sheff plaintiffs in 1996, "every passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity. Every passing day shortchanges these children in their ability to learn to contribute to their own well-being and to that of this state and nation."
We urge the General Assembly to collaborate with us in this process, so that, together, we can serve the best interests of the children of Greater Hartford.
Wesley W. Horton is an attorney for the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O'Neill.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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