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Hartford Courant: Sheff v. O’Neill was supposed to save and desegregate Connecticut schools. Did it?

Alison Cross, Hartford Courant

June 10, 2024 - 2 minutes

In 1989, Black, white and Latino parents sought to transform academic outcomes for students in Hartford and end racial, ethnic and economic segregation in Connecticut schools.

Alleging that the state had denied Hartford students the constitutional right to an equal education, the families filed Sheff vs. O’Neill, the landmark civil rights lawsuit that would solidify Connecticut’s school choice system.

Thirty-five years later, as Hartford Public Schools weathers yet another budget crisis, many question whether Sheff and its subsequent settlements have done enough to move the needle on educational achievement and integration, and whether the city and its students are better or worse for it.


Lisa Hammersley, the executive director of the School and State Finance Project, explained that funding from the state failed to keep pace with rising contractual obligations faced by magnet schools.

“We’re at the time where the state needs to recognize the fact that it’s broken,” Hammersley said. “While incremental progress has been made recently, what we’re seeing is just a culmination of all of the issues and all of the challenges that have been brushed to the side finally coming up and creating the fiscal crisis that Hartford and CREC magnets are facing.”

Coupled with the situation in Hartford, Hammersley said the loss of pandemic relief aid across the state has pushed nearly every district off a fiscal cliff and toward a financial reckoning.

“Everybody who looks at their financial situation has got to agree that the current funding system is broken and it’s unsustainable,” Hammersley said.

Now that Hartford has ushered the systemic inequities into the spotlight, Hammersley said the conversation must continue.

“Knowledge building is really the only way that people are going to understand that it’s not a Hartford Public Schools versus magnet schools versus Sheff agreement,” Hammersley said. “This is really just a time for serious reflection. What have we done? What is the system that we’ve created? And how can we fix it?”

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