The Effects of Sheff v. O’Neill on Hartford Schools

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In April of 1989, Elizabeth Horton Sheff and ten other Hartford families sued the state, alleging that the current school system produced racial isolation and unequal access to quality education (Megan & Kauffman, 2017). This case became popularly known as Sheff v. O’Neill. In July of 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs stating that the current system of education in Hartford was unconstitutional. However, no goals to resolve the school system where put in place. (Megan & Kauffman, 2017) (De la Torre & Kauffman, 2017) (De La Torre, 2017)  (Sheff Movement)

By the spring of 1997 the state released a three part plan in response to the Sheff V. O’Neil case. This plan included “(1) a 5-year state takeover of the Hartford school system, (2) a stronger commitment to early childhood education, and (3) the restructuring of the voluntary integration school programs (i.e. magnet schools).” (Sheff Movement) This 3-part plan along with the 2003 agreement to install 8 new magnet schools launched a 3-billion-dollar magnet school project in the city of Hartford. This project’s primary focus was designed to provide integration into the Hartford education system. In the 20 some-odd years since the Sheff ruling, magnet schools have proven to be a success. Hartford’s graduation rates are higher, test scores are higher, and dropout rates are lower. The numbers alone show vast improvement within Hartford’s education system. (Sheff Movement) (Megan, Kauffman, & De La Torre, 2017) Unfortunately the numbers portray only one side of the story.

While magnet schools are a well-intentioned response to the Sheff v. O’Neill ruling. They provided diversity, specialized focus on skills, and access to a quality education but they also had many unintended negative consequences. (Megan, Kauffman, & De La Torre, 2017) Ever since the Sheff ruling the board of education, the regional school choice office, the Sheff Movement and its attorneys, as well as the CT attorney general and his office have shifted their primary focus to the development of magnet schools in Hartford. This shift in focus has negatively affected traditional public schools, as they have suffered from a lack of funding, and a lack of access to fundamental resources. This shift in focus has also negatively impacted the students of Hartford who are not a part of the open choice program. They are left with little options and ultimately must attend a lower performing traditional public school. Thus,  despite their success, magnet schools in Hartford have created a number of negative consequences that affect students who are not “lucky” enough to be enrolled in these programs.

Before the Sheff V. O’Neil case, the Hartford education system was struggling. These public institutions were not performing well and that clearly negatively impacted Hartford Students. The hartford schools system in the late 80’s and early 90’s was home to some of the worst schools in the state. (Sheff Movement) Sheff and the families involved in the case deduced that the best way to solve this issue was school integration as Hartford public schools were largely African American or Hispanic. (Sheff Movement) School integration would not only force interaction among minority and majority students, Hartford schools would have to improve, to attract suburban and white students,  While it took time to see results after the ruling the plan was ultimately put in place. The goal of the Sheff movement was to ultimately have 100% of Hartford students enrolled in magnet schools or other school choice programs. (Sheff Movement) (Thomas, 2013) Unfortunately, 10 years late only 42% of Hartford Students are enrolled in Magnet or other school choice programs. The other 48% are in private schools, if they can afford them, home schooled, or in the traditional Hartford public school system. (Thomas, 2013)

After the Sheff ruling in 2003, 3 billion dollars of state and local funds was dedicated to the Hartford education system. However, that money was not used to improve the already existing public schools in Hartford. The money was used to create more magnet schools. As more magnet schools were created the more funding for schools had to be spread across a larger district. Since magnet schools are given a set budget based on their number of students and integration ratios, traditional public schools have been the first to suffer major budget cuts. (Megan, Kauffman, & De La Torre, 2017)

To date there are about 44 schools in the Hartford district.  22 of the 44 schools in Hartford are Magnet schools. The state and the local district helped fund magnet schools but initially the state was primarily responsible for funding magnet schools. However, over time, the local district had to take on more and more responsibility. (Zillow) (Magnet school webpage)

In 2008 The sheff movement, their attorneys, and the State of Connecticut with their attorneys  proposed an order which called for further expansion of school choice options and created the regional school choice office. (Sheff Document) Two years after the passing of that proposed order (2010) local districts became responsible for 20 percent of  the operating costs of magnet schools within those districts.  In the 2014-2015 school year, local districts became responsible for 30 percent of magnet school operating costs. In the 2014-2015 school year, the state paid 10,443 dollars per student to magnet schools. Each local district paid 4,407 dollars per student. This amount could not waver as magnet schools are funded-on a per pupil basis. As the debates to increase the amount of magnet schools have continued, State Rep. Andy Fleischmann of West Hartford stated in an interview with CT Mirror that “…he was skeptical about the benefits of building more magnet schools as it will continue to take funding from Neighborhood Schools.” (Thomas & Phaneuf, 2015).  In the 2016-2017 school year the Hartford Board of Education approved a 419 million budget for education from consisting of funds from the federal, state and local governments. This new budget resulted in job cuts an estimated 235 cuts. However, since magnet schools must receive a budget based on admitted students the cuts will most likely be centered around traditional public schools. (Megan, Kauffman, & De La Torre, 2017)

Hartford Courant journalists Kathleen Megan, Matthew Kauffman, Vanessa De La Torre wrote an investigative piece on the Hartford education system, particularly magnet schools, and how they affect traditional Hartford public schools. The articles focus primarily on Thirman L. Milner School. Milner is a traditional public school in Hartford that is doing poorly. Milner has been underfunded for over the last 20 years and is one of the worst performing in the state. When journalist went to visit Milner, they noted the mismatch school furniture, mouse and bug traps, mouse droppings, and the rundown structure of the building. The school did not have enough money to give the student useable textbook, or proper school materials. The school was also unable to fill many vacant teaching positions forcing them to turn to under qualified candidates. Martin Luther King Jr. school also suffered from the same consequence of negligence and underfunding. The King school has been described as rundown. The school did not have the money to repair basic problems like holes in the wall.  Meanwhile Annie Fisher, Mary Hooker, and the University of Hartford magnet school have access to a lot more funding. A team of students from Annie Fishers school just sent a science project into outer space. Mary Hooker has a waterfall descending into a brand-new lobby.  Annie Fisher & the University of Hartford magnet schools were given brand new athletic fields. These exceptional schools are within just a few miles of Milner and Martin Luther King Jr. school. What is most disheartening is that students clearly notice the difference in treatment and deduce that they themselves are not worth the money or the investment. (Megan, Kauffman, and De La Torre, 2017)

Kauffman and Megan also reported that even teachers have lost faith or confidence in being able to educate their students. This lack of funding, and general care for Hartford public schools has created a failing system. Traditional Hartford Public schools have extremely low test scores. There is an extremely high teacher turnover rate and many do not have access to safe and fully functioning playground, or decent, legible text books. Educators, politicians, and academics have referred to these schools as test centers. Unfortunately, it can’t even do that because some school don’t have the warm bodies to fill vacant teaching spots. (Megan, Kauffman, & De La Torre, 2017)

Due to the mass creation of magnet schools in Hartford, and the Sheff Standard, minority students are denied access to the quality education they provide. The Sheff standard is a popular name for the racial quota magnets schools must reach each year to obtain/sustain their magnet status. The Sheff standard for many Hartford magnet schools is 75 % black and Latino, 25% white and other. Investigative Journalist from the Hartford Courant Kathy Megan and Matthew Kauffman discovered rather jarring facts about this racial quota in their investigative piece on the effects of the Sheff ruling 20 years down the road. Over the last several years Magnet schools have had a hard time obtaining white students from the suburbs. This lack of white applicants makes it quite difficult for the magnets schools to maintain their percentages. That lack of applicants has led to principals of magnet schools accepting and denying students seats at their schools based on race. There are many schools in danger of losing their seats, Classical Magnet and Capital prep are two magnet schools that exceed the black and Latino quota at 77%. Capital Prep’s and Classical Magnet’s school’s principals admitted to having to deny minority students open seats just to maintain their magnet status. Ironically, not only are student of color being denied a quality education because of their race, Hartford schools are looking to provide that quality education to white suburban students who are typically already surrounded by excellent school systems. (Megan, Kauffman, & De La Torre, 2017)

More than 87 % of Hartford student apply for the school choice program. (Hartford Public Schools) Only 42% of Hartford students are enrolled through a lottery system. The lottery system was designed to provide a fair chance for all applicants of inter-district schools. The idea was that this way everyone has an equal shot. No one is unfairly turned away. Only, the lottery has become something that does the exact opposite.

CT Mirror wrote an article titled “Is school Choice really a Choice, or a Chance?”. The way the lottery system is set up there is no choice as students are reduced to the color of their skin or the economic status. (Thomas, 2015) In recent cases students have been admitted to schools like Capital Prep without even having to go through the lottery system. Students are being recruited and then selected to attend magnet schools based on their talents. The system has become completely corrupted further denying children of Hartford opportunities they so desperately need, because their next option is what is left of the traditional Hartford public school system. (de la Torre, Kauffman, and Megan, 2017)

Most of these schools are very small they have about 100 students or less per grade, so space is limited. In the documentary “Waiting for Superman” the director follows several children who are not from the Hartford area. However, they seem to be facing the same issues. Their traditional public school systems are wasting away as the expansion of school choice continues. In the last scenes of the documentary you see several hopeful families attend a lotterys for various magnet or charter schools. Parents have expressed throughout the documentary that this is their last hope for their children. If their kids don’t get in then they must return to their failing school systems. Most of these families’ children are not enrolled through the lottery and all you can see from both the parents as well as the children is defeat, they have lost their chance at a quality education. (Guggenheim, 2010)

Magnet schools were a well intentioned response to an already failing education system in Hartford. It is hard to believe that anyone could have foreseen all the negative consequences that  now exist as a direct result of Magnet School Expansion. Elizabeth Horton-Sheff in a CT Mirror article by Jacqueline Thomas stated how proud she was that 42% of Hartford Students were admitted into the school choice programs. It highlighted their success. (Thomas, 2013) Other mays see that 42% differently. It took the Connecticut government over 10 year to get a 42% participation rate. That means that 48% of students are not enrolled in magnet schools and a large percentage of those 48% attend the traditional Hartford public schools that are being bled dry. (Thomas, 2013) (Megan and Kauffman, 2017) Do they have to wait another ten year until they get what they deserve? Is it fair/constitutional that they have to go to schools that are barely getting by while magnet schools provide education to suburban students who have a various quality options surrounding them?  

The Sheff movement and magnet schools themselves have been under a lot of fire lately especially with the release of the Hartford Courant’s investigative series on the effects of Sheff. To gather both sides of this debate the WNPR show “Where we Live” invited the journalist Kauffman and Megan and Elizabeth Horton to speak.  Horton was clearly upset with the piece and stated that the journalists did not portray the entire story. Megan and Kauffman agreed that this was one side but a side that needed to be heard and given attention. It would have been interesting to hear Horton-Sheff’s response to the following statements. 48% of Hartford students are denied access to the quality education magnets schools provide. (Thomas, 2013) They are denied access to these school based on a corrupt lottery system selecting students based off race and/or talent. The expansion of magnet schools has resulted in major cuts of funding from traditional public schools. The now failing traditional public schools are a result of the cuts. The cuts made from public schools are then given to magnet schools, schools that support less than half of Hartford students. (Megan & Kauffman, 2017)

The Hartford Public school website praises the success of magnet schools and the improvement of the Hartford education system.  Yes, Magnet schools are succeeding and everyone knows they are. That success is the popular narrative, it’s what people want to hear, and what people want to focus on. The success of magnets schools has overshadowed the shortcoming of our traditional public schools, and instead of fixing traditional public schools we are slowly picking them apart and then not providing a better option for all. We are leaving children behind, yet we only focus on what is going right, even though there is so much going wrong. This paper is only one side of the story, it solely focuses on the negative impact of magnet schools since the Sheff V. O’Neill ruling, but ask yourself this, how does the other side of this story make any of these impacts better?



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Kauffman, M., & Megan, K. (2017, March 14). Imperfect Choices: With INtegrated Schools Out of Reach, Segregated Options Gain Favor. Hartford Courant. Retrieved from