On Behalf of All Our Children: The 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill Supreme Court Ruling

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Front page of the Hartford Courant highlighting the landmark case, Sheff v. O’Neill on July 10, 1996.

On Behalf of All Our Children: The 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill Supreme Court Ruling

The landmark court case charged with creating more quality and integrated schooling in the Hartford area has been a labor of love on behalf of many and a long drawn out battle between citizens and the state of Connecticut. The mother of lead plaintiff, Milo Sheff, reveals that the landmark case she spearheaded was never a “personal thing” for her. In a 2011 interview, Elizabeth Horton Sheff asserts, “It was always something that I engaged in on behalf of all our children.” The Sheff plaintiffs won their case 4-3 in the 1996 Supreme Court ruling. What that victory meant for the education of the children of Greater Hartford was unclear.

The Beginning of Sheff v. O’Neill

In 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff alongside several other parents from the city of Hartford and surrounding suburbs took action to hold the state of Connecticut accountable for the quality of their children’s education. The 18 school children, with their parents at the forefront, presented the state of Connecticut with what would become a landmark lawsuit. In the suit, the families claimed that the state had contributed to the racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of Hartford students that led to subpar quality schooling in comparison to their suburban counterparts.

The Sheff case was eventually tried in 1992. After nearly three months of trial, Superior Court Judge Harry Hammer ruled in favor of the state. He agreed with the defense’s stance that state could not be held liable for rectifying educational inequalities, because the state of Connecticut had not intended to create the segregation that existed between Greater Hartford school districts. He also asserted that the plaintiffs presented no proof that government action created the racial isolation that was so detrimental to the education of Hartford public school students.

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L to R: 10 year old Milo Sheff, Elizabeth Sheff, and plaintiffs’ attorney, John Brittain at a 1989 press conference. Photo cred: http://www.courant.com/news/education/hc-sheff-oneill-timeline-flash,0,105112.flash

Appeal and Victory: The 1996 Majority Opinion

After their 1995 loss, Sheff plaintiffs appealed their case to the State Supreme Court. It took the Justices ten months of deliberation to overturn Judge Hammer’s ruling and come back with a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The majority opinion, led by Justice Ellen Ash Peters, ruled that the state was in fact responsible for providing equal educational opportunities for all children. Section 42 of the 1996 ruling states:

“Despite the initiatives undertaken by the defendants to alleviate the severe racial and ethnic disparities among school districts, and despite the fact that the defendants did not intend to create or maintain these disparities, the disparities that continue to burden the education of the plaintiffs infringe upon their fundamental state constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity.”

The dissenting opinion agreed that Hartford school children were at an educational disadvantage, but not solely because of racial isolation. The dissent named poverty, not merely racial isolation for the disadvantages the city’s students faced. The Connecticut Supreme Court disagreed. In this instance, the outcomes and not the intentions of the state’s actions had been tried. It was presumed that the state had not intended for the racial, economic, and ethnic isolation of Hartford school children, but they were charged with remedying it. The ruling also pointed to location of Greater Hartford urban-suburban school district boundary lines as a cause of racial isolation and deemed them unconstitutional. Despite the ruling’s progressive rhetoric, the court made no clear recommendations to create a racially, ethnically, and economically integrated city-suburban school system. The majority cried urgency for Hartford school children, yet a there was no urgency in their recommendation for policy implementation. No deadlines were set and no there were no mandatory plans for integration. The Sheff plaintiffs had won on paper, but what had they really accomplished on behalf of all our children?

Click here to learn more about the Sheff Movement.


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

Sheff, Elizabeth Horton. Oral history interview on Sheff v. O’Neill (with video) by Candace Simpson for the Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project, July 28, 2011. Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford Connecticut.

“Sheff vs. O’Neill: A Timeline.” Courant.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2013. <http://www.courant.com/news/education/hc-sheff-oneill-timeline-flash,0,105112.flash>.

Sheff v. O’NEILL, 238 Conn. 1, 678 A.2d 1267 (1996).


2 thoughts on “On Behalf of All Our Children: The 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill Supreme Court Ruling”

  1. The revised draft includes a rich range of thoughtfully integrated links to primary source documents and the inclusion of the image of the Hartford Courant front page with the “Court Orders Desegregation” headline is a strong “hook” that will not only draw readers into the story but also communicates what was at stake in this case. Nicely done (though there is one broken link). Your closing paragraph references the essay headline, which is an effective way to reemphasize the “all our children” concept that you chose to give the article an emotional center. By leaving the closing question unanswered, however, readers are likely to draw the mistaken impression that nothing substantive happened as a result of the case. Certainly, as you rightly point out, no clear roadmap for the way forward was given. However, as the essay notes in the first sentence, this was a “landmark” case and even the previously mentioned headline speaks to victory. A stronger conclusion would draw a distinction between what the ruling failed to do (it did not propose remedies to the educational inequities) and what it did enable (a legal basis on which to pressure the state to implement changes). Certainly, it was neither a perfect nor immediate “victory” but this is a good chance to educate our readers about a case where winning in court is not the end of the story but only the beginning of a prolonged process of change. In fact, the opening paragraph alludes to this by gesturing to “long drawn out battle between citizens and the state of Connecticut. “ Overall, the writing is clear but with room to increase the precision of some phrasings. For example, see this sentence: “The landmark court case charged with creating more quality and integrated schooling in the Hartford area….” The word “more” is not the best modifier for “quality” or “integrated schooling” and the case wasn’t the party charged with improving those to items. Nice work distilling a complicated case into a concise entry with a rich range of integrated links.

    1. Clasrissa,thank you for your thoughtful feedback. A conclusion is definitely what is missing from this piece. I will revise the essay over the holiday break and post a new draft. My apologies for the broken link. It has been repaired and the document is now accessible.

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