Brigit Rioual and Nicole Sagullo
Magnets and Sheff v O’Neill
Magnet schools became popular in Connecticut after the Sheff v. O’Neill (1996) court decision. This court case called for equal educational opportunity for children in Hartford, which would happen through desegregation of the schools. As a result, magnet schools were and still are encouraged to be built by Sheff advocates because they provided quality, integrated environments; in their opinion, learning happens best when students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, and different racial backgrounds are together in a classroom (Eaton, 2007). Students not only from Hartford but also from the Greater Hartford area can apply to go to the magnet schools, and this creates a more integrated environment in the school.
In April of 1989, the original complaint for the Sheff v. O’Neill case was filed against the state of Connecticut (Sheff Movement, 2012). Racial, ethnic, and economic segregation between the city of Hartford schools and surrounding suburban schools was noted to cause unequal opportunities for education. The lawsuit’s goal was to give the children in Hartford more opportunities and chances, so they too could have an equal educational opportunity like their suburban peers.
In 1995, Superior Court Judge Harry Hammer ruled in favor of the state, denying the plaintiff complaints about de facto segregation (Sheff Movement, 2012). De facto means not done intentionally. No school or government actions caused the racial segregation; therefore, the court did not find it reasonable to enforce the schools to make remedies to the situation.
In 1996, an appeal was made to the Connecticut Supreme Court, where a 4-3 decision found that racial and socioeconomic segregation did in fact violate the segregation clause in the Connecticut Constitution and ruled that the state was obligated to provide equal educational opportunity for all students (Dougherty, 2009). With that, the court urged the State to find ways to promote desegregation, but without any specific goals or timetables.
In 2000, the dissatisfied plaintiffs filed a proposal, and in 2003, a legal settlement was declared. The settlement created a timetable of four years; it called for having 30% of Hartford minority students in reduced-isolation settings, defined as schools with fewer than 75% minority students (Dougherty, 2009). As a result of the settlement, 22 magnet schools, which are public schools with themes and an application system, were created (Dougherty, 2009). These schools were created to attract a diverse body of students, however, a consequence of the creation of these magnet schools were that the racial composition varied immensely. Some of the magnet schools met the criteria of fewer than 75% minority students, while others had too few minorities, and some had too many. Another consequence of these magnet schools was that most of the minority students were not even coming from Hartford; they were instead coming from the suburban towns around Hartford, as a result to the increase of minorities in the suburbs. In addition to these consequences, the Project Choice program, a voluntary transfer program for Hartford students to go to schools in the suburbs, did not meet the intended goal; 1,600 students should have been enrolled by 2007, but only 1,070 were (Dougherty, 2009). Overall, the settlement’s goals were not met for 2007; 30% of Harford minority students were not in reduced-isolation settings (Sheff v O’Neill, 2008).
In 2008, after the goals were not met in the first settlement in 2003, another settlement was agreed on (Sheff v O’Neill, 2008). This time a focus was made on the percent of students applying to go to a reduced-isolation school rather than just looking at the percent of students enrolled in reduced-isolation schools. With that, a goal of 80 percent of students from Hartford applying to go to a reduced-isolation school would be able to and 41 percent of minority students from Hartford are expected to enroll in a reduced-isolation school (Dougherty, 2009). In addition to this, the settlement included a descriptive plan for schools such as magnet schools and those schools that participated in Project Choice to follow. These settlement goals are to be met by 2013 (Sheff v O’Neill, 2008).
Dougherty, Jack, Wanzer, Jesse, Ramsay, Christina (2009) “Sheff v. O’Neill: Weak Desegregation Remedies and Strong Disincentives in Connecticut, 1996-2008.” In From the Courtroom to the Classroom, edited by Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, 103-127. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press.
Eaton, Susan (2007). The Children of Room E4. North Carolina: Algonquin Press
Sheff Movement (2012). “Sheff Movement: Quality Integrated Education for All Children.” http://www.sheffmovement.org/index.shtml.
Sheff v O’Neill (2008). Stipulation and Proposed Order, Connecticut Superior Court, April 4, 2008. Available from The Sheff Movement website,