Appeals Court Rejects Suit Challenging Race-Based School Choice Policy

By Mark Walsh — July 27, 2017 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit claiming that an African-American student was denied the chance to continue at a St. Louis charter school for allegedly discriminatory reasons.

The student, identified in court papers as E.L., attended Gateway Science Academy from kindergarten until 3rd grade. But then his family moved from the city of St. Louis to a suburban area of St. Louis County. When E.L.'s mother, La’Shieka White, sought to keep him in the charter school, the enrollment was denied.

But the reason was apparently not simply because the family no longer lived within the city limits. It was, the family says, because of E.L.'s race.

The charter school follows a policy that bars the enrollment of African-American students from outside the city. That policy appears to be at least somewhat tied to a longtime desegregation plan for the St. Louis city school district that includes a voluntary interdistrict transfer plan.

The transfer plan allows African-American students living in the city to transfer to St. Louis County school systems, and white students living in the county to transfer to the city. While the desegregation plan does not apply to charter schools in St. Louis, E.L.'s mother contends in the suit that the Gateway Science Academy told her that denial was required under the transfer policy of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., a non-profit entity created in 1999 to oversee desegregation efforts in St. Louis.

The family sued VICC alleging that its race-based transfer policy violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

A federal district court dismissed the suit, and in a July 27 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, upheld the dismissal in E.L. v. Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp.

The court ruled unanimously that the family lacked standing to sue VICC because it was essentially the wrong defendant. The suit on behalf of E.L. “erroneously assumes VICC’s policy, not Gateway’s, was the reason he was denied admission,” the appeals court said.

The court said the family was wrong to rely on VICC’s race-based transfer policy because “Gateway’s policy also differentiates based on race.”

The court cited a passage from the charter school’s policy that if an applicant’s “address is not found on the city site or the ZIP code is not listed above and the student identifies as African-American, you cannot enroll the student.”

The opinion does discuss, without great clarity, a provision of Missouri law that the family relied on that requires charter schools to enroll any student “eligible to attend a district’s school under an urban voluntary transfer program.”

The family thinks that provision “legally imposes VICC’s policy on charter schools,” the 8th Circuit court said.

“Even if VICC’s policy applies to charter schools under [the state law provision], VICC still would not cause E.L.'s injury,” the court said. “VICC does not make or adopt rules or regulations for charter schools; Gateway and the state of Missouri do.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.