Sheff v. O'Neill Supreme Court Ruling and Subsequent Stipulation Agreements

Jan 10, 2020

Connecticut Supreme Court Ruling

In 1996, in a 4-3 decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the state had an affirmative obligation to provide Connecticut's school children with a substantially equal educational opportunity and that this constitutionally guaranteed right encompasses the access to a public education, which is not substantially and materially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation. The Court further concluded that school districting, based upon town and city boundary lines, is unconstitutional. As a result of the decision, the Connecticut State Legislature passed legislation in 1997 encouraging voluntary actions toward racial integration. The act also included a number of other measures related to magnet and regional charter schools and included a requirement for the Connecticut State Department of Education to come up with a five-year plan to assess and eliminate inequalities between school districts.

Subsequent Stipulation Agreements

In 2002, the plaintiffs returned to court dissatisfied with the rate of school integration since the Connecticut Supreme Court's ruling in 1996. After two evidentiary hearings, the Sheff plaintiffs and then-Gov. John Rowland came to a mediated agreement as to the implementation of a number of voluntary, interdistrict programs designed to reduce the racial and ethnic isolation of Hartford students. This temporary, 4-year settlement — approved by both the General Assembly and the trial court — is known as the Phase I stipulated agreement and required, among other things, the State to spend $45 million over four years to establish eight additional magnet schools in the Hartford area. The out-of-court settlement also required the State to increase the percentage of Hartford students attending integrated schools to 30 percent by 2007.

In 2007, the Sheff plaintiffs returned to court again claiming the State of Connecticut failed to increase the percentage of Hartford students attending integrated schools to 30 percent by the designated time under the 2003 settlement. As a result of returning to court, in 2008 the Sheff plaintiffs and the State agreed to a new five-year Phase II settlement that called for building more magnet schools in the Hartford suburbs and expanding the number of openings available for Hartford children through Project Choice (formerly Project Concern). The Phase II settlement also included state-run technical and agricultural high schools.

In April 2013, the parties in Sheff v. O’Neill adopted a one-year, court-ordered stipulation allowing the State an additional year to reach the 2012-13 goal of 41 percent of Hartford’s minority students being in “reduced isolation settings." Later in December 2013, the parties announced a one-year Phase 3 settlement, which increased the number of magnet school seats, expanded Open Choice, and allocated funds to strengthen a Hartford neighborhood “Lighthouse School." In 2015, the case's parties would adopt a one-year extension of the Phase 3 settlement.

Most Recent Stipulation Agreement

On January 10, 2020, the parties in the case agreed to a new stipulated agreement that runs through June 30, 2022 and provides a pathway for potentially ending the litigation and judicial oversight of the case. Among its many components, the stipulated agreement:

  • Creates up to 1,052 new magnet school seats, including nearly 600 reserved for Hartford resident students;
  • Changes the Regional School Choice student assignment protocols so student lottery selection is based solely on socioeconomic status;
  • Provides additional state funding to diversify student bodies, including:
    • $1.1 million in funding for development of new magnet school themes;
    • $800,000 over two years to offer academic and social support for Hartford students participating in the Open Choice program;
    • $300,000 to incentivize suburban districts to increase the number of Open Choice seats they make available for Hartford students by 20 percent;
  • Simplifies the Regional School Choice application process to be more user-friendly and transparent for families;
  • Creates an Advisory Committee to review Sheff programs and make non-binding recommendations for improvement; and
  • Requires the Connecticut State Department of Education to develop a long-term, comprehensive school choice plan that helps ensure the stability, sustainability, and predictable and efficient operation of Sheff programs, as well as offers strategies for: providing a seat for every student who applies through the lottery, increasing teacher diversity, and addressing racial disparities in student discipline and academic achievement.

Citation for Connecticut Supreme Court Ruling

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

Citation for Original Plaintiff Complaint

Complaint, Sheff v. O’Neill, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford/New Britain at Hartford (April 26, 1989). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/1989-Sheff-Complaint.pdf.

Citation for 2003 Stipulation Agreement

Stipulation and Order, Sheff v. O’Neill, Superior Court, judicial district of New Britain, Docket No. X03-89-042119S (January 22, 2003). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/2003-Sheff-Stipulation.pdf.

Citation for 2008 Stipulation Agreement

Stipulation and Proposed Order, Sheff v. O’Neill, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S (April 4, 2008). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/2008-Sheff-Stipulation.pdf.

Citation for the April 2013 Stipulation Agreement

Stipulation and Order, Sheff v. O’Neill, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S (April 30, 2013). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/2013-April-30-Sheff-Stipulation.pdf.

Citation for the December 2013 Stipulation Agreement

Stipulation and Proposed Order, Sheff v. O’Neill, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S (December 13, 2013). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/2013-December-13-Sheff-Stipulation.pdf.

Citation for the 2015 Extension of the Phase 3 Settlement

Stipulation and Order, Sheff v. O’Neill, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. HHD-X07-CV89-4026240-S (February 23, 2015). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/2015-Sheff-Stipulation.pdf.

Citation for the January 2020 Stipulation Agreement

Revised Stipulation and Order Correcting Typographical Errors, Sheff v. O’Neill, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. LND CV-17-5045066-S (January 10, 2020). Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/resources/uploads/files/2020-Sheff-Stipulation.pdf.

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