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Teacher Transfers On Racial BasisBarred by Court

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A federal district judge in Philadelphia barred the School District of Philadelphia last week from continuing to use a racial-quota system to maintain a desegregated teaching staff.

U.S. District Judge Louis C. Bechtle ruled on Jan. 17 that although the school district acted correctly when it initiated the transfers of teachers, it illegally continued the practice after the racial imbalances were corrected.

Judge Bechtle's order in the lawsuit, Kromnick v. School District of Philadelphia, marked the first time that a federal court had ruled on the question of whether a racial-quota system, put into place as a remedy for past discrimination against workers, can be used to maintain the status quo once the discrimination has been remedied.

"The salient and ultimately fatal characteristic of the district's quota system is that its only function is to preserve the existing racial percentages," Judge Bechtle said. "This court concludes that while such a system may have been a permissible means of attaining a given racial balance, that system ventures into the impermissible range if it continues to allow race to be the sole criterion affecting employment once the desired end is actually met.

"To decide otherwise," he continued, "would be to sanction the persistent consideration of a particular human characteristic, race, that the law has declared shall not be an allowable basis for a distinction."

The school district initiated the teacher-transfer plan in 1978 in order to remain qualified to receive federal Emergency School Aid Act (esaa) school-desegregation grants.

Goals Accomplished

Last June, the Education Department's office for civil rights informed the district that the plan had accomplished its goals and that the district was in compliance with esaa regulations.

The civil-rights office also told the school district that it did not have to continue using the quota system, and ordered it instead to use "nondiscriminatory policies in the hiring, firing, and assignment of teachers." The school district, however, decided last August to retain the quota system to maintain the integration of its teachers.

Under the quota system, each school in the district is required to employ between 75 percent and 125 percent of the proportion of black teachers employed city-wide at the same level (elementary, middle, or high school) of the school system.

For example, if the entire district's elementary-school teaching staff was 40 percent black, the district was required under the quota system to ensure that each of its elementary schools had a teaching staff that was between 30 percent and 50 percent black.

In December 1981, four white kindergarten and elementary-school teachers filed a class-action suit against the district, arguing that the transfer plan violated both the Equal Protection Clause to the 14th Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion.

The teachers claimed that the transfer plan violated white teachers' seniority rights in two ways. First, they said, if a school in the district was racially identifiable as white, the least senior white teachers at the school was ordered transferred to black schools even if they had more seniority than similarly situated black teachers.

Second, they argued, once they were transferred to black schools for desegregation purposes, their ability to request transfers to other schools in the district was hampered because of the district's need to maintain the transfer plan's strict racial quotas.

"Clearly, the expectation of being assigned to a particular school within the district on the basis of seniority constitutes a term, condition, or privilege of employment," Judge Bechtle said. "Thus, the involuntary transfer of a teacher from a particular school solely on the basis of race and the imposed restriction on the selection of a new school solely on the basis of race constitutes racial discrimination ... prohibited by Title VII."

"However desirable it is to maintain racial balance, school teachers cannot be deprived of their rights under Title VII," he said.

Judge Bechtle went on to say that "even though the expectation of being assigned to a particular school is not a property interest protected by the Constitution, each individual has the constitutional right under the equal-protection guarantee to be protected from distinctions based solely on race in the absence of a substantial state interest."

He said that the school district failed to prove that it had such an interest on two counts.

First, the district "failed to provide evidence that the lifting of the quota would invariably lead to the resegregation of its teaching force." And second, the district "failed to show that other nondiscriminatory alternatives for maintaining faculty integration cannot be applied."

Elliot Alexander, a spokesman for the school district, said that the school board has yet to decide whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Responsibility Remains

"It's my understanding that in the meantime it is still our responsibility to maintain a racially balanced teaching staff, but that we can't do it on an involuntary basis," he said.

"Naturally, we are quite pleased," said Robert M. Goldich, the lawyer representing the four teachers who filed the lawsuit. Their only disappointment, the lawyer said, was that the judge ordered immediate relief only for those teachers who were transferred between August 1982, when the school district officiallly decided to continue using the quota system, and the date of the court's decision.

"It was an excellent decision, apart from that," Mr. Goldich added.

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