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U.S. Seeks To End Racial Teacher-Assignment Practice

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Washington--School districts that voluntarily maintain policies assigning teachers to schools on the basis of their race violate federal equal-protection laws, the U.S. Justice Department argues in a new lawsuit.

The case, filed last week against the Prince George's County (Md.) school system, could have ramifications for the hundreds of other districts believed to operate under similar policies, civil-rights experts said.

The Justice Department argues, as it has in recent cases affecting employee hiring, promotions, and layoffs, that the Prince George's faculty-assignment plan should have been dismantled immediately after its initial purpose was fulfilled.

Such plans were typically adopted by districts--under pressure from the federal government or the courts--to ensure that schools were not racially identifiable based on the composition of their faculty.

But many school officials now argue that efforts to maintain racially balanced school faculties serve a valid educational purpose: helping to prepare students for life in a multi-ethnic, pluralistic society.

The Prince George's case is the first filed by the Justice Department on this issue. It is seen by many as a test case that could ultimately determine what latitude school officials may exercise in their efforts to maintain racially balanced staffs at individual schools.

Some experts speculated that most such plans could not withstand the "strict scrutiny" standard adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its rejection last week of a Richmond, Va., policy that awarded minority businessmen 30 percent of all public-works contracts.

In that case, for the first time, a majority of the Court agreed that race-conscious remedies must pass a two-part test to be judged constitutional--they must be needed to achieve a "compelling interest," such as remedying clearly proven past discrimination, and they must be narrowly tailored to benefit only those who were discriminated against.

The Richmond decision "established the ground rules" by which the Prince George's faculty plan should be judged, said Clint Bolick, a former Justice Department lawyer who now works for the Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights.

The Landmark center, established in Washington in 1987, is planning to file a separate suit against Prince George's County on behalf of teachers who were involuntarily transferred under the policy.

"The question that must now be asked is whether there is a compelling interest to sustain racial classifications," said William Bradford Reynolds Jr., the former assistant attorney general for civil rights who initiated the action against Prince George's County.

As the Richmond decision and other recent rulings make clear, he said, "it's not good enough to say that such a policy responds to societal discrimination or numerical imbalances, or that it is necessary to provide 'role models' for students."

Even in cases where districts have been found to have discriminated, he said, "if there are other ways without using race that one can affirmatively address those problems, one must use them first."

The Prince George's case is also seen by civil-rights experts as a bellwether of the Bush Administration's agenda for civil rights in education.

While most pointed out that the lawsuit was filed on the first Monday of Mr. Bush's Presidency, they attributed that fact more to bureaucratic momentum than to any policy specifically developed by the Bush Administration.

The department's handling of the case from this point forward, they said, will provide a clearer indication of whether President Bush intends to pursue the controversial civil-rights agenda of his predecessor.

Mandatory Reassignments

The faculty-assignment plan used in Prince George's County governs the initial placements of new teachers as well as voluntary transfers of teachers between schools, district officials said.

But the most controversial element of the plan--mandatory reassignments--affects only teachers in schools where a declining student enrollment necessitates transferring some teachers to another building, school officials said.

In those cases, the least senior teachers in the school may not be required to move if their loss would cause the staff's racial composition to fall outside specific guidelines. The ratio has been adjusted periodically by the board of education.

Instead, school officials said, the least senior teachers of the other race--whether white or black--would be required to transfer.

Last year, approximately 10 white and two black teachers were affected by the policy, according to school and teachers' union officials.

In past years, the district's guidelines were intended to ensure that each school's faculty ratio approximated the existing pool of teachers in the relevant grades.

But the current year's goal of between 35 and 50 percent minority teachers at each school cannot be met with the existing supply of minority teachers, who comprise only 29 percent of the district's teaching force.

The higher guideline was "set as a goal to go out and work hard at recruiting more minority teachers," said John Murphy, superintendent of the Prince George's system.

Some 63 percent of the 104,500 students enrolled in the district are black, and the remaining 37 percent are white and other minorities, according to school officials.

Federal Pressure Applied

The system adopted its policy in 1971 as a result of negotiations with the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's office of civil rights.

The requirement that districts seek racial balance in teaching assignments arose out of a concern that communities in the South would continue to view schools as predominantly white or black based on the racial composition of their faculty, according to Boyd Bosma, a human- and civil-rights specialist with the National Education Association.

The federal courts first clarified standards for faculty reassignments, as well as the dismissal and demotion of teachers and other staff, in a case involving the Jackson, Miss., schools, Singleton v. Jackson Municipal Separate School District.

After the so-called "Singleton ratio" was upheld on appeal, Mr. Bosma said, hew officials and federal courts began to require similar faculty-reassignment plans in districts that had racially identifiable school staffs.

Throughout the 1970's, he said, hew's civil-rights office required that districts have nondiscriminatory faculty-assignment policies in order to qualify for desegregation assistance under the Emergency School Aid Act.

"As a result," he said, "many districts moved to desegregate faculty, while continuing to stall on student desegregation, and hew approved their actions."

Mr. Boyd and other civil-rights experts said it was impossible to determine how many districts had retained their faculty-reassignment policies since the esaa was merged into the Chapter 2 block-grant program in 1981.

Several school and teacher-union officials in districts across the nation acknowledged last week that they maintain such policies, and said they are generally popular with both teachers and the broader community.

'We Were Going To Get Sued'

Prince George's officials defend their policy as an integral part of ongoing, court-supervised efforts to desegregate the school system, even though the policy was not ordered in their current desegregation case.

But a 1983 ruling in the current case--which held that there was no longer any evidence of discrimination by the district in teacher hiring or assignment--indicates that the policy is no longer justified for reme8dial purposes, its opponents argue.

As a test case, the Prince George's situation "is especially suitable because of the 1983 ruling," Mr. Bolick said, "because it is the clearest case of a district discriminating against teachers for no reason."

But school officials interpret the 1983 ruling as an indication that their policy had successfully prevented the resegregation of school faculties. Any effort to disband it will subject them to a lawsuit by the naacp, they insist.

"Whatever we do, we were going to get sued by somebody," Mr. Murphy said.

The superintendent said that "a quality teacher is a quality teacher, regardless of their race." But maintaining the policy nonetheless has helped bolster community and political support for the district's efforts to end a divisive racial situation, he argued.

A lawyer for the Prince George's County affiliate of the naacp, which has joined the school board in its defense of the policy, said the Justice Department's position "is like saying to a diabetic, 'You're asymptomatic, now you must stop taking insulin."'

"It doesn't work that way," said George Mernick, a lawyer with the Washington firm Hogan and Hartson, which represents the Prince George's naacp on a pro bono basis.

Elliot Mincberg, another lawyer with Hogan and Hartson, said the Justice Department "is making up this notion that a district can be unitary with respect to part of its operations, and not the rest."

U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufmann agreed last week to hear the new Justice Department lawsuit and any filed by the Landmark center as matters substantially related to the district's current desegregation lawsuit, which he oversees.

He has asked the parties to research the history of the policy and to submit a joint report on whatever facts in the case they can agree on by March 23; he has tentatively scheduled an April 13 hearing on the matter.

'Benefits of Diversity'

Brian Porter, a district spokesman, noted that the faculty-assignment policy also reinforces the district's current efforts to improve multicultural education.

And Mr. Mincberg noted that some federal-court rulings have "suggested that even independent of any proof of prior discrimination, there is a valid educational purpose in trying to achieve the benefits of racial diversity."

The defense of such a policy on educational grounds was upheld most recently in 1984, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Kromnick v. School District of Philadelphia.

A unanimous three-judge panel ruled in Kromnick that the Philadelphia school board could continue to use its faculty-balance policy because it would aid in teaching students lessons about their society.

"One such lesson is of a spirit of mutual tolerance and mutual benefit, a lesson that is more difficult to absorb when schools attended by black students are taught by black teachers while schools attended by white students are taught by white teachers," the panel wrote in its decision.

The appeals panel also held that Philadelphia's policy was clearly remedial even though, as in Prince George's County, it was imposed separately from the district's primary desegregation efforts.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of Kromnick, which means it does not stand as binding precedent outside of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Virgin Islands.

Collective-Bargaining Issue

The Prince George's County Educators' Association last year filed a grievance against the board's faculty-balance policy after an unusually high number of teacher reassignments resulted from a decline in the district's high-school enrollment.

The union argues that teacher4reassignments are an issue of working conditions, rather than instructional policy, and thus should be subject to collective bargaining, according to Marjorie Sprirer, president of the pgcea

The union has raised this issue during ongoing talks for a contract that would take effect next summer, she said.

"We believe that there should be a strong, positive minority-teacher presence in every building," she said. "But we believe that should be accomplished through hiring, not teacher reassigments."

The Justice suit also challenges the district's sick-leave policy, arguing that a 30-day limit on using accumulated sick-leave days for maternity reasons discriminates against women.

School officials said the disputed language is not applied in practice.

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