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Court Rejects District Plan To Lay Off Only White Teachers

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A school district may not lay off only white teachers to preserve the affirmative-action gains of a desegregation plan, a federal appeals court has ruled.

"The exclusive layoffs of one race, in an effort to rectify past injustices, is an impermissible means to a legitimate end,'' said a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a case involving the Bridgeport, Conn., school system.

In its May 17 decision in Crumpton v. Chop, the panel said a proportional-layoff scheme designed to help preserve hiring gains made by minority teachers would pass constitutional muster.

The ruling was hailed by the chief lawyer of the National Education Association, who argued the case before the Second Circuit Court on behalf of the union's local affiliate, which challenged the 1992 layoff plan.

'Don't Tamper With Seniority'

"What this says is that you don't lightly tamper with seniority for the purposes of affirmative action in layoffs,'' said Robert H. Chanin, the general counsel of the N.E.A.

"You can have proportional layoffs to keep from undercutting the progress you have made,'' he said. "But you don't use [layoffs] to keep making progress.''

Since 1979, the Bridgeport school system has been operating under a consent degree that gives hiring preferences to minority teachers.

In 1992, because of a budget crunch, the district sent layoff notices to 17 white first-year teachers. No minority teachers were sent layoff notices. The white teachers were eventually rehired.

Procedure Challenged

The Bridgeport Education Association challenged the layoff procedure, claiming it violated its collective-bargaining agreement.

But a federal district judge granted a motion by the Bridgeport district to clarify the consent decree to give preference to minorities during layoffs.

The union appealed to the Second Circuit Court, claiming that the modification violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The Second Circuit Court agreed, saying that the strict racial prefer el10lence in the layoff policy was not narrowly tailored to rectifying past discrimination, and thus failed to pass muster under a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case, Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education.

In Wygant, the High Court struck down a layoff plan giving preferences to minorities because the court found it was not sufficiently linked to past discrimination by the board.

The appeals court said a proportional layoff scheme in the Bridgeport district would likely pass muster under Wygant because its purpose is to rectify the district's past discrimination.

"Indeed, a proportional-layoff scheme may be necessary here in order to safeguard the progress made in Bridgeport toward desegregation,'' the court said.

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