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Court Rejects Appeal in Chicago School-Council Case

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week removed the final legal cloud over the landmark Illinois law that created local governing councils for each of Chicago's public schools.

The justices on June 10 rejected an appeal from a group of Chicago principals who argued that the composition of the school councils violates the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote." The principals also claimed that the law's removal of their tenure was a violation of their contractual and property rights.

The 1988 Chicago School Reform Act shifted power from the central school board to individual school councils made up of parents, other community residents, teachers, and the principal. The councils have the authority to hire principals and approve budgets for their schools.

The original law gave parents greater voting power than other residents in selecting council members. The Illinois Supreme Court struck down that voting mechanism in 1990, ruling that it diluted the votes of nonparents. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990.)

At issue in the current appeal, Pittman v. Chicago Board of Education (Case No. 95-1318), was a revision of the law adopted by the Illinois legislature in 1991. The new law gave all voters in a school zone the right to vote for up to five council candidates. The councils are now composed of six parents of children at the school and two community members. The principals challenged the makeup of the councils as a violation of the one-person, one-vote principle.

A federal district judge upheld the new law in 1994. The judge held that the law did not offend the one-person, one-vote principle because all voters were granted an equal number of votes in the council elections. The court also ruled that the allocation of six of the eight council seats to parents was a qualification for office and not an infringement on the right to vote.

The judge also rejected the principals' tenure claim. Before the school-reform law, Chicago principals received tenure after three years. The law removed tenure protection and gave the school councils the power to hire principals under four-year contracts.

'Troubled Institution'

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the lower-court ruling, although on slightly different grounds.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled unanimously last year that the concept of one person, one vote does not apply to the school councils because they are special-purpose bodies that do not have powers to tax or set systemwide policies or budgets.

Writing for the appeals panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner said, "It is common knowledge that the public schools of Chicago are a troubled institution." As long as legislative reforms were rational, the federal courts "ought not to snuff them out," he said.

The Supreme Court refused without comment to disturb the 7th Circuit's ruling.

Other Action

In separate action last week, the high court:

  • Affirmed a lower federal court's ruling in a long-running voting-rights dispute over a 1986 Mississippi school-boundary law.

    The justices last year had asked a special three-judge federal district court to clarify earlier rulings about whether Mississippi had failed to get proper clearance from the Department of Justice for its school-boundary law. (See Education Week, April 26, 1995, and April 1, 1992.)

    Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mississippi is one of several states that must get federal approval of changes in voting procedures and laws.

    In a series of rulings, including the clarification issued late last year, the district court said Mississippi failed to highlight changes in a massive rewrite of its school code that would affect school district boundaries.

    The high court affirmed the lower court's ruling in Moore v. Dupree (No. 95-1623) without issuing a written ruling of its own.

  • Struck down Congressional districts in Texas and North Carolina that 5-4 majorities said were drawn with an impermissible reliance on race.

    The June 13 rulings in Bush v. Vera (No. 94-805) and Shaw v. Hunt (No. 94-923) represent the high court's latest thinking on the constitutionality of fashioning black-majority or Hispanic-majority legislative districts.

    The court is still struggling to set a clear standard on when a minority district violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection.

    The congressional-district rulings take on added significance for school districts because the Supreme Court recently agreed to examine the use of race in school board redistricting. The court will consider that issue next term in the case of Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (No. 95-1455). (See Education Week, June 12, 1996.)

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