If we on the Editorial Board had to come up with a list of the most important cases in the 378-year history of Connecticut, Horton v. Meskill, 172 Conn. 615 (1976), and Sheff v. O'Neill, 238 Conn. 1 (1995), would make the list. Without the persistence of Simon Bernstein, a retired Superior Court judge who died in May at the age of 100, the plaintiffs would not have succeeded in either one of those cases.
In 1965, under pressure from the federal courts to remedy Connecticut's malapportioned state Senate and dreadfully malapportioned state House of Representatives, the state Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to call a constitutional convention to remedy the problem. Simon Bernstein was a delegate from Bloomfield. Noting that Connecticut was the only state whose constitution made no reference to education, Bernstein submitted a provision on the subject in the first week of the convention.
The political leaders at the convention, Democrat Ella Grasso and Republican Meade Alcorn, wanted nothing to do with this provision, which would divert attention from what they considered the important work of the convention: keeping the federal courts at bay. They tried to ignore Bernstein's proposal, but Bernstein would not be ignored. He spoke out publicly on the subject at the convention and, eventually, in the last week the leaders threw up their hands and let Bernstein's proposal be approved unanimously on a voice vote.
The proposal became what is now Article Eighth, § 1, and states: "There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation."
It is very likely that Grasso and Alcorn thought the proposal merely stated a truism of little practical significance, so why not keep one persistent delegate happy at no cost? How wrong they were!
Education in Connecticut has always been a local affair, for both policy and finance. Because local financing of education is almost exclusively based on the property tax, by 1973 there were enormous disparities in the ability of towns to finance education, with Greenwich able to afford the best that money can buy and Sterling unable to afford anything more than the minimum. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially said school finance was none of the U.S. Constitution's business because it said nothing about education, which therefore was not a fundamental right.
Enter therefore Bernstein's addition to the Connecticut Constitution. And lo and behold, in 1977 the Connecticut Supreme Court in Horton v. Meskill held that, because of that addition, education was a fundamental right in Connecticut and the legislature was required to reform the school finance system to allow every child in the state an equal educational opportunity. Today the school finance system looks very different from the way it looked in 1977, thanks to the persistence of Bernstein in 1965.
But that is not all. By 1996, only a small number of children living in Hartford were attending a desegregated public school. The U.S. Constitution provided no remedy because the U.S. Supreme Court only required desegregation of schools within a district unless the school districts were set up for racial reasons. Since all school districts in the Hartford area are townwide, and every town was set up long ago for reasons having nothing to do with race, desegregating Hartford's schools meant turning once again to the Connecticut Constitution.
Once again, building on its decision in Horton v. Meskill in 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court said in Sheff v. O'Neill that an equal educational opportunity includes a desegregated one. Today approximately 37% of the public school students who live in Hartford are attending a desegregated school, not only because of a voluntary busing program in existence since the 1960s but also because of the vast increase in magnet schools located in both Hartford and the suburbs since 1996.
There is still a long way to go before all students in Connecticut receive an equal educational opportunity. But the progress is palpable. And none of it would have happened without the persistence of Delegate Bernstein in 1965. At the end of a long life, he had every right to look back and say: "In the history of Connecticut, I made a difference."•