Date: Fri 23-Oct-1998
Date: Fri 23-Oct-1998
COMMENTARY: Everybody Lies In Sheff Vs. O'Neill
By Chris Powell
A courtroom, Jimmy Breslin wrote a few years ago, is a place where people lie.
Breslin might not have been even that polite if, instead of the ridiculous
defense of the Menendez brothers in California -- the boys who murdered their
parents for their money and then claimed child abuse -- he had been following
the school integration case of Sheff vs. O'Neill.
For at least in the Menendez case only one side was lying.
Not that Judge Julia Aurigemma, presiding over the reopening of the Sheff case
in Middletown Superior Court, is going to put anybody away for perjury, but no
one will envy her having to render a decision in favor of either side. Maybe
the best the judge could do would be to abdicate and immediately send the case
back up to the state Supreme Court, which is where it is going again anyway
and which began the mockery with its muddleheaded but pointedly unenforced 4-3
decision in favor of the plaintiffs two years ago.
The plaintiffs still refuse to acknowledge that they seek racial assignment of
every public school student in the Hartford area -- racial assignment having
been, after all, the logic if not quite the conclusion of the Supreme Court's
decision. (There was no conclusion because the court did not want to take full
responsibility for its logic.) The court found in the state Constitution a
requirement for precise balance in the racial, ethnic, and religious
composition of the student population in every school, and this can be
accomplished only by treating students first, last, and always not as
individuals but as members of groups.
The defendant, the state, doesn't want to acknowledge that the Sheff decision
was for integration, not merely improvement of Hartford's terrible schools,
nor that all the state's desperate hocus-pocus in response to the decision --
the feel-good enrichment and exchange programs, the charter and magnet
schools, the voluntary busing, even the state's takeover of the Hartford
school board -- has accomplished no integration. Indeed, Hartford's schools
now are even less integrated than they were at the time of the Sheff decision.
Of course there are few indications of improvement in Hartford's school system
anyway; it remains in most respects Connecticut's poorest performing system,
with horrible test scores and dropout and pregnancy rates. Successful school
systems attract students, but the Hartford system's population is falling
dramatically while the populations of adjacent systems are growing. That is,
the decades-long flight from the city by people searching for better education
continues unabated by Sheff or anything else. The refugees used to be mostly
white; now they are nearly all people of color.
Indeed, the hocus-pocus, contrived by the General Assembly and the state
Education Department, seems to have been meant precisely to distract from the
Supreme Court's order for integration, to give the illusion of concern and
action while avoiding the political firestorm that justly would result from
treating people racially and moving them around against their will.
Meanwhile the plaintiffs and the defendant alike pretend that, whatever the
outcome in court and the legislature, the process begun by the Sheff case is
some great benefit to parents and students everywhere. That is, parents who
want to stay in the city are supposed to be happy with the prospect of sending
their children to school far away from home. And suburban parents are supposed
to be happy not only with the prospect of more distant schooling but also with
the prospect that their children's classrooms, wherever they turn out to be,
will have a higher proportion of students performing substantially below grade
level and on the verge of dropping out, thus dumbing everything down.
In an interview the other day Governor Rowland acknowledged but seemed
indifferent to the state's failure to answer the Sheff decision with
integration. He freely conceded that the problem with Hartford's schools is
cultural rather than educational and was content to let the adequacy of the
state's response be judged by the Supreme Court in the renewal of the case.
Chief Justice Ellen Peters, author of the Sheff decision, has retired and been
succeeded on the court by Francis M. McDonald, Jr., a Rowland appointee and
former prosecutor who is believed skeptical of the Sheff decision and less
likely to favor vigorous enforcement of it. Asked about McDonald's now having
the swing vote on Sheff, Rowland alluded to the justice's age -- 67, less than
three years from the constitutionally required retirement -- to speculate that
McDonald might not even still be on the court by the time the case was decided
again there, and that there might be another justice to appoint by then.
This observation was sharp and new, indicating that the governor has done more
thinking about the Sheff case as a matter of legal and political strategy than
he has discussed in public -- and hinting that, for whatever reasons, he does
not fear that racial assignment, the idiot logic of Sheff, will ever be
fulfilled in policy, at least not during his next term or two.
Maybe it is because, whatever happens at the state Supreme Court, if Sheff
ever was taken seriously and students were forced, on account of their race,
to attend school anywhere they didn't want to go, someone would sue in federal
court and get an injunction, and then racial assignment, the supposed
requirement of Connecticut's Constitution, would be ruled impermissible under
the United States Constitution.
The Sheff case has been going on for nine years with neither result nor
candor, and, as the governor hints, it well could continue in futility for
another nine. Just as in Dickens' novel Bleak House, where a great estate is
tied up for so long in probate court that by the end of the case the lawyers
have devoured everything and nothing remains for the squabbling heirs, the
issues of the Sheff case could be moot in another nine years. For by then
nearly all Hartford's students may have left the city on their own or dropped
out to hang around down by the river at Adriaen's Landing, an undertaking in
which Connecticut no doubt will take more pride.
(Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.)