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State Takeovers Run Afoul of Voting Rights Act

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States attempting to take over low-performing school districts are running into an unexpected obstacle: the Department of Justice.

Texas officials were so outraged about the situation that they filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court here. And officials from Texas, California, and New York have met with Michael Cohen, the education adviser to President Clinton, to discuss the hang-up.

At the center of the disputes is Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That provision requires certain states and other jurisdictions to win clearance from the Justice Department for any actions that might affect the voting rights of racial, ethnic, or language minorities. The law gives the federal agency 60 days to respond to such a request.

The Justice Department has interpreted the provision to apply to state interventions, such as the appointment of a receiver to operate a school district, that might affect the responsibilities of locally elected officials.

Texas officials, feeling thwarted in their effort to improve the management of a local school district, filed suit in June, asking for a declaratory judgment that the temporary appointment of a master or management team need not be cleared in advance by federal officials. A hearing on the lawsuit is expected this fall.

'At Their Mercy'

Texas officials intended to step in and appoint a management team last spring to help correct deficiencies in the Wilmer-Hutchins district in Dallas County. But the takeover was delayed more than two months as the state awaited Justice Department approval.

Mississippi currently is awaiting clearance for its takeover of the North Panola district, announced in January. ("Mississippi Poised To Take Over Cash-Short District," Jan. 17, 1996.)

At the time, state officials did not realize that they would need federal approval to intervene in the district, said R.D. Harris, Mississippi's deputy state superintendent of education.

"We're in the process of doing it after the fact, so it does handicap you. We're just at their mercy."

According to the lawsuit filed in federal court, Texas law authorizes the appointment of a master or management team to intervene in districts that the state designates as "academically unacceptable."

The team cannot intervene in any district elections. And the Wilmer-Hutchins school board is not displaced during the time the team is in place. Instead, the team assumes a portion of the board's responsibilities for a limited time.

Texas Arguments

Texas officials argue that these provisions are a change in the distribution of power among officials--a change "which has no direct relation to, or impact, on voting" and, therefore, no implications under the Voting Rights Act.

The suit also alleges that the state's accountability provisions are in line with federal law. The 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires states to take corrective action against districts that fail to make adequate progress toward state student-performance standards for four years in a row.

Such actions may include appointing a receiver to operate the district in place of the superintendent or school board.

During the 60 days that the Justice Department was reviewing Texas' request to intervene in the Wilmer-Hutchins district, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service moved in with no problem, raiding the district offices to secure records related to possible financial mismanagement.

'Left Powerless'

"Meanwhile, the state of Texas has been left powerless to enforce its own laws with respect tothe operation of school districts within the state," complained Mike Moses, the Texas education commissioner, in a letter to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

States covered under the Voting Rights Act include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Certain jurisdictions are covered in California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Officials at the Justice Department declined to discuss the Texas suit last week.

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