About Sheff v. O'Neill

In 1989, when her son, Milo, was a fourth grade student at Annie Fisher Elementary School in Hartford, Elizabeth Horton Sheff joined with __ other families and began a long and arduous journey to redress the inequity between the level of education provided to students in Hartford public schools and that available to children in surrounding suburban districts.

This journey has become known around the State of Connecticut, and throughout the United States as Sheff vs. O'Neill, a landmark civil rights lawsuit that seeks to prepare all children to live and prosper in a growing racial/ethic, economically globally connected world. The plaintiffs in this case continue to advocate for the State of Connecticut to uphold the constitutional rights of children in Hartford schools.

The Sheff Case Timeline

April 27, 1989: Elizabeth Horton Sheff and other parents file a lawsuit on behalf of their children against then-Gov. William A. O'Neill, charging that Connecticut's system of separate city and suburban school districts led to racially segregated schools and a violation of their children's rights to equal opportunity.

April 12, 1995: After an 11 week-long trial in 1992, Superior Court Judge Harry Hammer finally rejects claims that officials are obligated to correct educational inequities resulting from state law and policy.

July 9, 1996: The State Supreme Court overrules Hammer in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs, ruling that the racial and socioeconomic isolation of Hartford school children violates the state constitution. The court sets no goal, remedy, and timetable to resolve the problem, saying that it is the legislature's and governor's responsibility to take the first step. Read the decision

Summer and fall 1996: Shortly after the Sheff decision is released, Governor Rowland appoints an “Educational Improvement Panel” to advise the legislature on a response to the Sheff decision. The EIP holds hearings through the fall and issues its final report to the legislature in January of 1997.

Spring 1997: The Legislature passes a 3-part response to the Sheff v. O’Neill decision, including a) a five year state takeover of the struggling Hartford school system, b) a major new commitment to early childhood education throughout the state, and c) the basic structure of the current two-way voluntary integration program, including a new regional magnet school system and an expanded interdistrict transfer program to be known as “Project Choice” (name later changed to “Open Choice”).

Feb. 25, 2003: The House of Representatives votes 87-60 to approve an out-of-court settlement in the Sheff vs. O'Neill case, an agreement that includes plans for eight new integrated magnet schools in Hartford over the next four years.

Aug. 2004: The Sheff plaintiffs return to court, arguing that the State violated the settlement agreement by neglecting to fill new magnet schools to capacity and stalling progress toward the integration goal. The State responds that it has complied with the settlement by opening two magnet schools per year, while phasing in grade levels as planned. The trial court rules that the plaintiffs have returned to court prematurely and that the remedy should be given more time before judicial review.

Fall 2007: Although 22 interdistrict magnet schools have been created and more than 1,000 minority Hartford schoolchildren attend suburban schools, these efforts fall well short of the court-ordered settlement goal of 30 percent of Hartford minority children attending integrated schools. Read the Sheff Movement 2007 "Report Card". Negotiations between the plaintiffs and state education officials are unsuccessful, and plaintiffs return to court in the fall of 2007.

In early 2008the state and plaintiffs agreed to a new five year “Phase 2” settlement agreement that calls for expanded regional magnet schools and use of Project Choice to provide a quality, integrated education to all children. The settlement calls for greater coordination of regional magnets and choice programs, annual enrollment targets, and a new goal that 80% of Hartford parents seeking to send their children to an integrated school will be accommodated. Read the full settlement here.

In late 2012, under the terms of the Phase 2 settlement, plaintiffs and the state are required to meet to negotiate the next phase of implementation of the Sheff mandate. After several months of negotiations, the parties fail to reach a long-term Phase 3 agreement, and instead adopt a one-year court-ordered stipulation which gives the state one additional year to reach the 2012-13 goal that 41% of Hartford minority children be in “reduced isolation settings.” Read the one-year stipulation here.

September 2013: The state releases data showing large achievement gains fro Hartford students attending regional magnet schools and the Open Choice program.

November 2013: The state reaches its 2012-13 target of 41% of Hartford minority children be in “reduced isolation settings,” and negotiations on a Phase 3 settlement continue.