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Date: Fri 23-Oct-1998



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Date: Fri 23-Oct-1998

Publication: Bee

Author: CURT

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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.)

Comments are open. Be civil.

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