N.C. Lawsuit Revives Historic Integration Case
A challenge to the policy for admitting students to magnet programs in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools has broadened into a potentially serious threat to the entire plan for enforcing racial diversity in North Carolina's largest district.
In a case that fits a pattern seen around the country in recent years, a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Charlotte 1st grader in September contends that the race-conscious admissions policy is a form of unconstitutional discrimination.
Last week, lawyers for the girl expanded their attack to include a challenge to the district's entire school desegregation plan. In addition to magnet schools, that plan involves attendance zones drawn with racial balance in mind and some mandatory busing for integration.
The latest move came after Senior U.S. District Judge Richard D. Potter agreed earlier this month to consolidate the magnet-school suit with the district's historic but long-dormant desegregation case known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
At that point, Judge Potter took the unusual step of raising a volatile issue that no one in the magnet school case had asked him to address: whether the time has come to put the 33-year-old Swann case to rest--in legal terms, whether the system should be declared "unitary."
Rights Violations Alleged
It was a development that caught local school officials off guard. "We don't have a position on it yet," said Leslie Winner, the district's in-house lawyer. "We need some time to examine the evidence."
In court papers filed last week, the district disputed the charges in the magnet school suit brought by William Capacchione on behalf of his daughter, Cristina.
The family argues that the district violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it denied the girl admission to a communications magnet program last year because she is not black.
The district admits "that black and white students have been denied their choice of school on the basis of racial balance."
But it argues that controlling the racial makeup of magnet programs, which now operate at 42 of the district's 135 schools, "is a constitutionally permissible means" of satisfying the Swann orders.
Those orders include a landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave districts nationwide the green light to use mandatory busing as a tool to integrate schools.
Lawyers representing black schoolchildren last fall asked Judge Potter to consolidate the Capacchione case with Swann, which had been dormant since 1980.
'The Bottom Line'
The district also claims Cristina would not have gotten into the magnet program even if she had been black because she had drawn a number in the admissions lottery that was too high.
Mr. Capacchione, who is active in a local citizens' group that advocates more neighborhood schools, said last week that such issues are beside the point.
"The bottom line is, it really doesn't matter whether she would have gotten in or not," he said. "The practice is discriminatory."
The district's response to the lawsuit does not address whether officials believe that the 96,000-student system qualifies for unitary status.
In some cases, districts that originally fought federal desegregation orders have become unwilling to see them end. Often, they fear losing the extra money that comes with court supervision and worry that an end to oversight would make policies to promote integration more open to attack.
Those concerns have intensified in recent years with the ascendancy of a more conservative cadre of federal judges.
The Supreme Court has said that districts should be found unitary if they have done everything "practicable" to remedy the effects of a "dual" system of racially segregated schools.
Family Broadens Challenge
Last week, in response to Judge Potter's March 6 ruling, lawyers for the Capacchiones for the first time made a bid for such a ruling. "The school district's use of court-ordered desegregation plans as an excuse for discrimination is impermissible and intolerable," the new court papers state.
Further, the amended complaint says, the district's desegregation policies as a whole are unjustified "generally, in light of the fact that the school system has achieved unitary status, and accordingly, should be so declared by this court."
Meanwhile, lawyers for the Swann plaintiffs have made it clear they disagree.
Anita Hodgkiss, a Charlotte lawyer whose firm, along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, represents the district's black children, cited figures showing that enrollment at 28 percent of district schools fell outside racial-balance quotas during the last school year.
As of last fall, 50.9 percent of students districtwide were classified as white, 41.4 percent black, and 7.7 percent in some other group.
"There's still a pattern of the predominantly black schools not being equal to the predominantly white schools," Ms. Hodgkiss said. "We think in many ways that the school system is not in compliance with Swann."