Sheff v. O’Neill July 1996 Dissenting Opinion

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In the spring of 1995, a Superior Court judge refuses to hold the state of Connecticut responsible for remedying educational inequality between Hartford students and their suburban counter parts. In the summer of 1996, the State Supreme Court overrules the 1995 trial court verdict. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs. The dissenting opinion dissects key points of the cases and makes a strong argument for the state of Connecticut.

The Sheff case argued inequality in three specific areas. They sought to balance adequate education, educational opportunity, and racial/ethnic concentration. According to the report, the majority reconstructed the plaintiffs’ argument. Although they claim that the Sheff plaintiffs are not entitled to any constitutional protections for their claims, the 1996 dissenting opinion of the Sheff case acknowledges “the urgency of finding an appropriate remedy for the plight of Hartford’s public schoolchildren” (46). The dissenting opinion is in agreement with the trial court which found that poverty (not concentration of race or ethnicity) was the cause of educational inequality for Hartford schoolchildren.

In the report, the dissenting opinion also found that the court unfairly reworked the plaintiffs’ claims to give them a victory. In The Children of Room E4, Eaton says that Justice Borden takes issue with the majority’s argument consolidation, as well (Eaton, 180). In fact, “The plaintiffs expressly disavowed at trial any claim that their constitutional rights had been violated by any acts or omissions on the part of the city of Hartford or its board of education, or on the part of the twenty-one surrounding suburban towns or their boards of education” (146).

Discussion Questions:

1. The dissenting opinion is that the majority created a new legal argument for the plaintiffs. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

2. What do you feel were the causes of educational disadvantage described in the Sheff case and why?

3. In the report, it discusses the use of the state mastery test results as a tool for measuring educational inequality between Hartford and suburban schoolchildren. Do you feel that standardized tests are an accurate tool for measuring student achievement? What do or don’t they measure?