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School Desegregation Order in Texas District Upheld

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A federal appeals court in New Orleans, saying that three times is enough to hear arguments in one case, has rejected a Beaumont, Tex., school district's challenge to a 1981 school-desegregation order.

The South Park Independent School District, one of two districts that include parts of Beaumont within their boundaries, had contested the order because its officials believed "that it could desegregate its schools with a good deal less busing than was required" under U.S. District Judge Robert M. Parker's order, according to Tanner T. Hunt Jr., a lawyer for the school board.

'Attendance Tracks'

Under that order, students in grades 4 through 12 are assigned by lottery to one of two "attendance tracks" to ensure maximum racial mixing in the district's schools. Judge Parker excluded students in grades K-3 from the order.

Sixty-two percent of the district's 10,000 students are white, and the remaining 38 percent are black.

According to Mr. Tanner, the plan, in effect, ensures that each school affected by the order will have an enrollment that precisely matches the racial composition of the district as a whole.

"We argued that the Supreme Court never required a mathematically precise distribution of students in the fashioning of a desegregation plan," Mr. Tanner said. "The board feels that this plan requires the maximum amount of busing possible, and that it is quite likely that it can meet the constitutional test to desegregate the district with a good deal less student transportation."

In its March 1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared that Judge Parker's plan was not constitutionally flawed. Its ruling marked the third time in six years that the court was required to render an opinion on the district's desegregation plans.

The lower court's findings, the appeals panel said, "are not challenged as clearly erroneous and, indeed, on the record they could not be."

"While perfect racial balance is certainly not required, the achievement of such balance is equally certainly not constitutionally prohibited," the court continued. "While portions of the district judge's opinion read in isolation might indicate that he misinterpreted constitutional requirements, the opinion read as a whole shows that he understood and fairly applied the constitutional precepts."

The school district's racial-enrollment policies first came under court scrutiny in 1970, when the federal government brought suit against it and the state, alleging that the district had failed to eliminate a dual school system in violation of the 14th Amendment.

In August of that year, a federal district judge adopted a desegregation plan offered by the district that in large part retained neighborhood attendance zones, sent some white students to predominantly black schools but not vice versa, and promised to integrate teaching and administrative staffs.

In 1976, the federal government filed a motion with the district court for "supplemental relief," alleging that the plan had not worked to dismantle the dual school system in the district. The district court denied that motion, but the Fifth Circuit, on appeal, upheld it and ordered the lower court to modify the plan.

Series of Hearings

The district court held another series of hearings and in June 1980 refused for a second time to grant the federal government's motion. In May 1981, the appeals panel, hearing the case on appeal again, overturned the lower court and again ordered it to modify the plan.

The case was reassigned to Judge Parker, who held hearings in July 1981. The following month, he ordered the implementation of a plan that he devised himself that established the lottery system for assigning students to schools.

The Justice Department, which represents the federal government in the lawsuit, filed a brief in the case arguing against the school board's position for a modification of the existing plan.

John V. Wilson, a spokesman for the department, said that the government's position in the case, U.S. v. Texas Education Agency (South Park Independent School District), did not run counter to the Reagan Administration's often-stated position against mandatory busing for desegregation purposes.

The department said that contrary to Mr. Tanner's assertions, the school board was only contesting a part of the order that pertained to the establishment of centers for grades 9 and 10 in the district's formerly all-white high school, and grades 11 and 12 in the district's formerly all-black high school.

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