Five Minutes that Changed Connecticut: Simon Bernstein and the 1965 Connecticut Education Amendment

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This essay was developed in the Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar in Fall 2013 and published in Jan 2014 by See other Trinity student essays.

Hartford classroom, 1957
Hartford classroom, 1957 – Hartford Times Collection, Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library and Connecticut History Online

Hartford lawyer and Democratic delegate Simon Bernstein stuck out from his political peers at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention. While the Democratic and Republican chairmen of the time were entrenched in a debate over the state’s unequal political representation system, Bernstein dared to dream a little bigger. As a member of the Bloomfield Board of Education, Bernstein recognized that Connecticut was the only state that did not guarantee its citizens a constitutional right to an education. Bernstein thus decided to draft a new amendment to address this problem. After days of being ignored by his Democratic Party superiors and, finally, threatening to confront the media about his concerns, Bernstein’s request was met. Delegates at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention passed Bernstein’s amendment which guarantees free public education to every child. This set the stage for a series of prominent educational lawsuits, including Horton v. Meskill (1970), Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), and Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell (2005).

The Man Behind the Amendment
Bernstein was born on January 17, 1913, in Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating from Trinity College and Harvard Law School, he began his political career in Hartford as a lawyer and Democratic alderman. During his time in Hartford, Bernstein served on the city’s Finance Committee and also actively participated in the 1940′s Zionist movement, a political effort that sought to encourage local lawmakers to support Israel’s fight for its own state. In 1950, Bernstein moved to Bloomfield and was elected to the Bloomfield Board of Education.

Simon Bernstein’s 2011 interview with the Cities Suburbs and Schools Project

In all of his political efforts, Bernstein proved he was not afraid to confront difficult issues that others were hesitant to address. For example, in 1947, Bernstein took on a legal case involving a racially restrictive covenant, a term used to describe real estate agreements that prohibit people of a specific race from occupying a property. This covenant, in particular, limited a property sale in the West Hartford area to “non-Semitic persons of the Caucasian race.” The Hartford Courantpublished an article about Bernstein on March 28, 1947, which wrote that Bernstein felt the covenant’s racially specific language was “against public policy.” Bernstein eventually managed to get this phrasing erased from the original property agreement, making him the first person in Connecticut to successfully address a legal case of this kind.

The Creation and Impact of the Education Amendment
One reason why Bernstein’s peers at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention attempted to stifle his enthusiasm for including an education amendment was that they were focused on only one task: revising the state’s system of political representation. Connecticut’s representation system needed to be fixed as a consequence of the 1964 United States Supreme Court ruling in Reynolds v. Sims. The Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause required state legislatures to apportion representatives based on each district’s population to ensure that all citizens are equally represented. This “one man, one vote” law thus made Connecticut’s system—two representatives for every district regardless of population—unconstitutional.

Because the sole purpose of the Convention was to align Connecticut’s representation system with Reynolds v. Sims, John Bailey, the influential Democratic chairman, had little interest in seeing any proposals regarding schools. However, this did not stop Bernstein from voicing his concerns about Connecticut’s lack of a constitutional guarantee to education: “I was enough of a history student of law, a lawyer, to know that once a convention is called for the state or national, nothing is irrelevant,” Bernstein stated in an interview. Rather than accept the legislature’s preplanned agenda, Bernstein chose to challenge his political superiors.

In order to gain the legislature’s attention, Bernstein repeatedly asked Bailey to consider his proposal and also threatened to discuss his frustration with the media. In the end, it was this threat that worked. Bailey granted Bernstein a meager 5 minutes to draft a proposal in an effort to quickly return to the discussion on political representation. Bernstein’s amendment, which he scribbled onto a scrap of paper in order to make his 5-minute deadline, is general because Bernstein believed the language of the Constitution should reflect overall principles and ideas. It states that, “There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.”

1965 Education Amendment draft

Bernstein was given only minutes to draft his proposal for what is known today as the 1965 Education Amendment. The above image is a facsimile of the document. The actual draft of the Article is held at the Connecticut State Library.

Although the world “equal” is not explicitly written in the amendment, its inference has been used as a foundation for nationally recognized educational inequality lawsuits such as Horton v. Meskill (1970), Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), and Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell (2005). At the time of Horton v. Meskill, Connecticut supplied school districts with $250 per child, forcing towns to rely heavily on local property taxes for additional funding. The Horton plaintiffs used Bernstein’s amendment to argue that this system was unconstitutional because it meant educational quality varied considerably from poorer to wealthier towns. Sheff v. O’Neill used Bernstein’s amendment to prove that the extreme racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of the Hartford school district left its schoolchildren, and suburban schoolchildren, with an insufficient education that the state was required to remedy. The CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit used the 1965 Educational Amendment to argue that Connecticut’s system for funding public schools was not only inadequate but also disproportionately harmed minority schoolchildren by diminishing their ability to participate in the democratic process, thrive in college, and reap the monetary rewards of intellectual success.

After his years as a lawyer, Bernstein served as a Connecticut Superior Court Judge for 27 years. He passed away on May 27, 2013, at his home in Sarasota, Florida, at the age of 100. His contribution to Connecticut lives on through the 1965 education amendment that continues to serve as a foundation for educational inequality lawsuits throughout the state.

Elaina Rollins, a sophomore at Trinity College in Hartford during the 2013-2014 academic year, is an Educational Studies major and a resident of Columbus, Ohio.

learn more
“CCJEF V. Rell Overview.” Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, 2013.Link.

Oral History Collection A-Z: Simon Bernstein. Interview by Jack Zaiman. Video, December 22, 1971. Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. Link.

Bernstein, Simon. Oral History Interview on Connecticut Civil Rights (with video) – Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project. Interview by Katie Campbell. Pdf file, video, jpeg, August 1, 2011. Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford. Link.

“PDF: CCJEF (Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding) V. Rell.” The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, n.d. Link.

Collier, Christopher. Connecticut’s Public Schools: A History, 1650-2000. Orange, CT: Clearwater Press, 2009.

Dougherty, Jack, and colleagues. On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2011. Link.

Eaton, Susan E. The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.

“Bernstein Seeks End of Restrictive Clauses.” The Hartford Courant. March 28, 1947, sec. ProQuest – Hartford Courant Historical Newspaper database – Available through Link.

“Simon Bernstein.” The New Haven Register. May 30, 2013.

Op-Ed Revision: Choice Schools May Not Be as Simple as They Seem

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In an increasingly large and metropolitan city, Hartford’s educational inequality issues are anything but simple. Sheff v. O’Neill, Connecticut’s 1996 State Supreme Court ruling which found that the extreme racial and ethnic isolation of Hartford schools was unconstitutional, left the Sheff plaintiffs eager for an integration plan. In recent years, that plan has been choice schools – a Sheff strategy often supported by high test scores and increased diversity statistics. However, just like the Sheff ruling, choice schools may not be as perfect as they initially seem.

Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) results reveal that magnet school students, on average, outperform neighborhood school students. 2013 data shows that while 54% of third graders in CREC magnet schools met the state reading goal, only 25% of third graders in Hartford Public Schools (HPS) achieved similar results (Thomas). The data does not lie – there is an undeniable achievement gap between magnet school students and their public school peers. However, when asked why Hartford students perform better in choice schools, HPS spokesman David Medina stated that, “The district will have no further comment” (Thomas).

Magnet school students’ high test scores do not prove that choice schools cause improved academic achievement. Choice school proponents such as Sheff lawyer Martha Stone claim that, “The performance of Hartford youth soars once they attend magnet schools and schools in the suburbs” (Thomas). Stone’s statement mistakes correlation for causation. There is a direct correlation, or parallel, between high test scores and choice schools. However, there is no explicit proof that desegregated schools are the root of student achievement.

Student achievement in choice school environments may be skewed, because many choice school advocates unfairly separate Hartford schoolchildren into two distinct groups: choice school students and non-choice school students. A true evaluation of choice schools must acknowledge that Hartford’s school lottery system actually divides children into three groups: choice school students, HPS students who applied to choice schools but did not receive a spot, and HPS students who did not apply at all. Rather than compare the CMT scores of choice vs. non-choice schools, Hartford should compare the test scores of its choice school students against the scores of HPS students who participated in the lottery but did not receive a spot.

By evaluating the change in test scores of both the students who transferred from HPS to a choice school and students who attempted to transfer but failed after bad luck in the lottery, Hartford can determine the net impact of its magnet and charter schools. All students who participate in the lottery fill out choice school applications on their own accord, thus creating a pool of applicants that may not evenly reflect the demographics of Hartford schoolchildren as a whole. To compare the scores of choice vs. non-choice schools would be unfair, because each school might have widely different groups of students due to the self-selected applicant pool.

Choice school advocates’ belief in charter and magnet schools relies on the false assumption that if the school lottery process is random, then choice school applicants must be random as well. It’s possible that choice school applicants are a distinct sector of all Hartford schoolchildren who share more in common than just their desire to leave HPS. For example, magnet school students may outperform public school students not because they underwent some elaborate academic transformation, but because they were outperforming their peers all along. Families with the initiative to apply to successful magnet schools have also probably taken the initiative to help their children perform in their less-successful school (Winans). Also, considering the tedious and confusing choice school application process, it would not be surprising if the time, money, and knowledge parents utilize to complete lengthy school applications also goes towards helping their child succeed in an underperforming public school (Dougherty et al., 2013, p. 234).

Student achievement in choice schools is difficult to explain because its possible that the majority of choice-school applicants are already high-performing.
Student achievement in choice schools is difficult to explain, because its possible that the majority of choice-school applicants are already high-performing. SOURCE: Elaina Rollins.

Choice schools are unarguably the most politically viable option in Hartford. The Sheff movement has worked tireless for twenty-four years to allow thirty-seven percent of district students to attend integrated schools (Thomas). However, despite the good intentions of choice school advocates, a simple comparison of choice school and non-choice school test scores does not prove that CREC magnet students outperform HPS students because of their new school environment. Hartford should compare the test scores of all choice school applicants, because those students may outperform their peers in whatever school they attend. Criticism of magnet and charter school success should not be seen as a call for their closure. Instead, there simply needs to be a deeper analysis of the way standardized test scores are used to make claims about this city’s students – the children all educational integration activists are ultimately working for.

Explanation: I revised my Op-Ed essay, because the debate over magnet schools is one I need to know and understand. After receiving comments on my original draft, I saw gaps and holes in my argument that I believed I could fix with a little more analysis and thinking. It is one thing for me to understand the recent history of Sheff v. O’Neill, but considering my interest in educational policy, I know it is just as important to evaluate the current policy efforts that are taking place. I spent most of my time editing my claims about how Hartford should use test scores to judge choice school effectiveness. Before this final draft, I did not understand that choice school advocates should focus their attention on all choice school applicants’ CMT scores – not just those who won the lottery. After this realization, I restructured my essay to begin with an explanation of correlation vs. causation, which then allowed me to transition into a discussion about test score comparisons and the lottery’s applicant pool.

Works Cited

Dougherty, J., Zannoni, D., Chowhan, M., Coyne, C., Dawson, B., Guruge, T., & Nukie, B

(2013). School Information, Parental Decisions, and the Digital Divide. In G. Orfield,

Educational Delusions? (pp. 219-237). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thomas, Jacqueline Rabe (2013, September 12). State Report: Students in Desegregated

Schools Test Higher). CT Mirror. Retrieved from

Winans, Sutter (2013, January 20). Letter: Unfair Comparison Of Hartford Schools. The

Hartford Courant. Retrieved from

Alex Knopp discusses Hartford’s progress since 1989

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One Nation Indivisible lunch panel and discussion at the Hartford Public Library. SOURCE: Elaina Rollins

This past Friday, November 8, One Nation Indivisible, a two-day education integration conference, hosted a lunch and panel discussion at the Hartford Public Library entitled “Brown v. Board of Education for a New Generation.” Prominent education activists, lawyers, and professors from the New England area came together to discuss their involvement with Sheff v. O’Neill (1989), Hartford’s major education inequality lawsuit, as well as the city’s continuing efforts to diversify its public schools.

Alex Knopp, Clinical Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School, Plaintiff’s Representative for Sheff v. O’Neill, and a panel contributor, has worked on the Sheff case for only one and a half years. This length of involvement makes Knopp less experienced than many other activists, but his knowledge about educational law makes him a valuable asset to the Sheff case. At the panel discussion, Knopp explained that as a Plaintiff’s Representative, he focuses on the implementation of Sheff’s mandates.

Knopp spoke about how the Hartford area has changed over the past 24 years since Sheff v. O’Neill was initially filed in court. One major difference is Hartford’s connections with its surrounding suburbs. Today, current education innovations in the city rely on regional cooperative structures that were not in place before Sheff. Also, Knopp argued that public financing has majorly changed since 1989. The current debate over whether suburban schools should aid less prosperous districts is the result of 24 years of Sheff activism.

The “paradigm of school reform” has also changed since 1989, according to Knopp. It is now standard for legislators and education activists to consider the relationship between the Governor of Hartford’s reform agenda and Sheff’s reform agenda. Knopp explained that, fortunately, these agendas often overlap. Along these same lines, the city of Hartford and the State Department of Education are now much more involved in the Sheff case than it was 24 years ago. Knopp stated that the State Department of Education is especially open to new school integration initiatives.

Finally, Knopp discussed the more recent educational inequality case Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell (2005) and how its existence may help the current Sheff initiative. Knopp ended his comments by affirming his support for diverse and affordable housing options, which he believes are linked to diverse and successful schools. He stated that Connecticut’s guarantee to education “is a right, and should be respected.”


Exercise 7: How to Lie With Maps

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Racial Diversity in the Hartford Area (2009-2010)

Racial Segregation in the Hartford Area (2009-2010)


The first map, which includes a variety of rainbow-colored districts, presents Hartford and its surrounding suburbs as racially diverse. This image of racial diversity was achieved by increasing the number of buckets used to divide the data,  readjusting each bucket’s data range, and selecting a rainbow color theme. Using eight different buckets implies that the entire set of data is diverse and is better understood when broken down into smaller parts. Also, because each individual bucket represents a different range of data – the red bucket covers a 0.3 range while the magenta bucket covers a 0.19 range – I was able to make it appear as though only a few suburbs are extremely segregated. Finally, the rainbow color theme, as opposed to a gradient theme, makes it more difficult to compare levels of racial segregation without directly consulting the legend. The second map, which presents Hartford as racially segregated, displays the data using only two buckets and two colors in order to imply stark racial differences between Hartford and the surrounding suburbs. By oversimplifying the data into two ranges – 0 to 0.5 and 0.5 to 1.0 – it appears as though the majority of white citizens and minority citizens are sharply divided.