Continued Segregation in an Unlikely Place

by Holly Wonneberger, Staff Editor, GJPLP

When the general public thinks of the state of Connecticut, they likely think of fall foliage, large colonial brick houses, and Ivy League campuses.

These images do not reflect a whole reality.

Most people know that Brown v. Board of Education determined that separate but equal is not equal, and schools across the country were required to integrate.[1] A lesser-known state-level case, Sheff v. ONeill was decided over four decades after Brown, and sought to demand the same changes. Sheff ordered Hartford-area schools to integrate because the existence of extreme racial and ethnic isolation in the public school system deprives school children of substantially equal educational opportunity; and required the state to take further remedial action.[2] The Connecticut Supreme Court concluded the school districting scheme, as codified in districting and attendance statutes, was unconstitutional under the Connecticut Constitution.[3]

In Sheff, public school children brought action against state officials seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.[4] At issue in the case was whether or not the defendants had failed to provide students with substantially equal educational opportunity as a result of alleged racial and ethnic segregation in the Hartford metropolitan area[5]. The Court determined the state has an affirmative obligation to respond to segregation in public schools according to Article 1 § 20 of the state constitution.[6]

Although Sheff was decided almost twenty years ago, the Hartford school district remains under a court order to integrate. The state recently set integration goals for the school district,[7] A robust system of magnet schools in the Hartford metropolitan area has helped the district move closer towards integration. The District is currently working to have 47.5 percent of all Hartford students in integrated schools by the end of 2015.[8] This means that as of this writing, over half of Hartford students are attending racially segregated schools.

It is jarring that the capital city of one of the wealthiest states in the country still provides racially segregated public schools to most of its children. It is even more jarring that the Hartford metropolitan area is not even the worst of it. Fairfield County, sometimes referred to as the “gold coast” for its idyllic shorelines, sees equally stark racial segregation in its own schools. While the Hartford metropolitan area is working, albeit slowly, toward real integration, the southwestern corner of the state has no such hope, with equally concerning opportunity gaps along racial and city lines.

Table 1

The data in Table 1 shows the racial and educational disparities in the Hartford and Fairfield County/Bridgeport metropolitan areas. Residents of towns near Bridgeport are not only more than twice as likely (in some cases three times as likely) to hold a college degree but 20 percent more likely to graduate high school.[9] Worse, while these neighboring towns have school districts ranked among the top 50 in the state, every school district in the city of Bridgeport is among the fifteen worst in the state.[10] By living in almost completely white nearby towns, children in Fairfield County have a much greater chance of obtaining a quality education than those within the Bridgeport city limits. What does this mean?

Although the United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, declaring that “separate but equal is not equal” was apparently not enough. However, just as Brown did not go far enough to ensure quality, racially integrated schools to every student in the United States, Sheff did not go far enough to ensure quality, racially integrated schools to every student in Connecticut. Thousands of Connecticut students are surrounded by famously wealthy towns, yet attend under-resourced, failing schools. In Connecticut, zip code and race apparently remain indicators of educational opportunity and socioeconomic potential.

The policy of Sheff should be extended to order the integration of schools in the Fairfield metropolitan area. Students there suffer just as much racial discrimination in their access to quality education, especially when considering the vast wealth surrounding them in neighboring towns. As shocking as it may seem that such racial and socioeconomic disparity exists in one of the wealthiest states in the country, it is even more shocking that it is especially rampant and untreated in the wealthiest county of that state.

[1] See Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954).

[2] Sheff v. O’Neill, 678 A.2d 1267, 1281 (Conn. 1996).

[3] Id at 1285.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 1285; Conn. Const. art. I, § 20 (“No person shall be denied the equal protection of the law nor be subjected to segregation or discrimination in the exercise or enjoyment of his or her civil or political rights because of religion, race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex or physical or mental disability.”)

[7] Vanessa de la Torre, New Sheff Agreement Offers More Magnet, ‘Open Choice’ Seats, Hartford Courant (Feb. 24, 2015, 7:41 PM), http://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-sheff-agreement-extension-0225-20150224-story.html.

[8] Id.

[9] Connecticut School District Demographic Profiles, Proximity, http://proximityone.com/ct_sdc.htm (last visited Oct. 20, 2015); Connecticut District Rankings, School Digger, http://www.schooldigger.com/go/CT/districtrank.aspx (last visited Oct. 20, 2015).

[10] Id.