Published Online: April 30, 1997

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Racial Quotas in Desegregation Case Rejected

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A federal appeals panel has shot down a series of lower-court orders that required the Rockford, Ill., schools to meet racial benchmarks in everything from test scores to teaching assignments.

Offering further evidence of the federal judiciary's pullback on court-imposed desegregation remedies, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said the district could not be held responsible for closing the achievement gap separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian-American peers. Subscribe to Teacher Magazine

In a strongly worded ruling, the appeals court also threw out quotas set by U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Michael Mahoney in the areas of student discipline, teacher hiring and assignment, remedial education, and cheerleading squads. And it denounced as "absurdly confining" the racial-balance requirements that the judge had imposed to avoid segregation within individual classes.

"Violations of law must be dealt with firmly, but not used to launch the federal courts on ambitious schemes of social engineering," the three-judge panel found. "Children, the most innocent of the innocent persons occasionally brushed by Draconian decrees, should not be made subjects of Utopian projects."

Desegregation activists denounced the decision.

"This is a nasty opinion that really creates an impossible set of standards for justifying remedies to educational discrimination," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University.

Test-Score Order Assailed

In 1993, Judge Mahoney found that the 28,000-student district had systematically discriminated against African-American and Latino students, two groups that make up a third of its enrollment. Last year, he issued a string of remedial orders, including a ruling last spring in which he gave school officials four years to halve the test-score disparity between white and minority students. ( "Judge Rules Ed. Practices Led To Segregation in Ill. District," Nov. 10, 1993, and "Racial Quotas Are Ordered For Rockford," June 19, 1996.)

In that student-achievement mandate, the judge sought to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1995 decision in the Missouri v. Jenkins case from Kansas City, Mo., that set stringent limits on judges' use of test-score disparities as justification for desegregation remedies. ("In K.C. Case, Court Curtails Judges' Powers," June 21, 1995.)

Quotas Thrown Out

But the appeals court found that he had failed to do so, saying it was unlikely that lower scores by blacks and Hispanics on standardized tests stemmed from discrimination by school officials.

"Were there a feasible means, decreeable by a court, of closing the gap in educational achievement between white and black students, the gap would have been closed by now," the appeals panel wrote.

A state-by-state study by the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that is an advocate for poor and minority students, warned last fall that progress toward closing the gap affecting blacks and Hispanics had stalled, and in some cases reversed, since 1988. ( "Achievement Gap Widening, Study Reports," Dec. 4, 1996.)

In its unanimous ruling April 15 in People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit panel also:

  • Overturned a ban on academic tracking imposed by Judge Mahoney. It said judges and lawyers are incapable of resolving the controversy over sorting students by ability. The court said the district can do so as long as uses it objective, nonracist criteria.
  • Struck down the requirement that the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in individual classes fall within 5 percent of their proportion at that grade level in a school. Calling those limits "too tight," the appellate panel sent back to Judge Mahoney the question of how far they should be relaxed.
  • Found unconstitutional requirements that at least 13.5 percent of the district's teachers be black or Hispanic, that each school's faculty mirror that of the districtwide teaching force, and that minority teachers gain "super-seniority" rights in a layoff.
  • Threw out racial-balance standards for student disciplinary cases, saying "they entail either systematically overpunishing the innocent or systematically underpunishing the guilty."
  • Declared impermissible an order that black and Hispanic enrollment in remedial programs mirror that in the district overall.
  • Called racial quotas for cheerleaders "a barefaced denial of equal protection" that "demeans the remedial process in school desegregation litigation."

Schools Chief Ambivalent

Rockford Superintendent Ronald L. Epps voiced relief at some aspects of the ruling, and said he was heartened that it left intact the funding for educational programs aimed at boosting minority achievement.

But the superintendent also expressed concern that the decision would undermine progress in diversifying the district's teaching force.

And he said it lent credence to the perception created by a series of recent rulings that the federal courts no longer have "a serious commitment to desegregation."

"It leaves the desegregation of the schools dependent on the good faith of the school boards and communities," Mr. Epps said. "This is going to be an issue this nation is going to have to come to terms with: the isolation and segregation of students in our schools by race."

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