Education

High Court To Hear N.J. Teacher-Layoff Case

By Mark Walsh — July 09, 1997 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Washington

Setting the stage for a significant ruling on affirmative action in education, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review whether a New Jersey school board violated federal law when it laid off a white high school teacher instead of an equally senior black teacher in order to promote staff diversity.

The high court disregarded the advice of the Clinton administration late last month when it accepted the appeal of the Piscataway, N.J., school district. The district sought to maintain racial diversity in the business education department of Piscataway High School in 1989 by retaining the department’s only black teacher while dismissing a white peer.

The Clinton administration, which once strongly defended the district’s actions, recently told the high court in a brief that the much-debated case was too idiosyncratic to provide the basis for a major ruling on affirmative action. (See Education Week, June 11, 1997.)

Affirmative action critics interpreted the court’s June 27 acceptance of Piscataway Township Board of Education v. Taxman (Case No. 96-679) as likely to lead to a ruling restricting race-based employment actions that are not designed to remedy past discrimination. They pointed out that the conservative-dominated court has grown increasingly skeptical of race-conscious government action.

“Racial preferences as a form of affirmative action are definitely on their way out,” said Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator and the president of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington think tank. “I think people see the handwriting on the wall.”

Ms. Chavez, who headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan, said she was happy to see the high court take the case even though she agreed with lower courts, which ruled that the district’s layoff decision violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII bars employment discrimination on the basis of race and other factors.

Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said the case should yield important guidance for schools about when they can take race into account in employment decisions. The NSBA filed a brief urging the high court to uphold race-based employment decisions meant to foster diversity in public schools.

“From an educational perspective, we really need diversity among teachers,” Ms. Gregory said.

No Coin Toss

The case involves the Piscataway board’s decision eight years ago to reduce the positions in the business education department at Piscataway High from 10 to nine. Faced with a choice between laying off the white teacher, Sharon Taxman, or a black teacher, Debra Williams, with equal seniority and similar qualifications, the board invoked its affirmative action policy for the first and only time. In past layoffs involving workers with equal qualifications, board members had flipped a coin.

The Department of Justice under President Bush sued on behalf of Ms. Taxman, arguing that the race-based layoff violated Title VII because it was not tied to any past employment discrimination in the district. A federal district court ruled for Ms. Taxman and awarded her $143,000 in back pay and other relief.

Ms. Taxman was rehired by the district in 1992 and now teaches in a classroom next to Ms. Williams’. In 1994, while the case was pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, the Clinton administration drew criticism by switching sides in the case and defending the goal of racial diversity on school faculties.

The appeals court later dismissed the federal government from the case and ruled 8-4 last year to uphold the damages award for Ms. Taxman. (See Education Week, Dec. 13, 1995, and Sept. 4, 1996.)

Stephen E. Klausner, the lawyer for Ms. Taxman, said his client was disappointed the high court accepted the school board’s appeal. “She wanted it over,” he said. “This isn’t a philosophy debate over affirmative action as far as she is concerned.”

David B. Rubin, the lawyer for the Piscataway district, said board members " are concerned about their ability to do things that they think are in the best interest of the children.”

“They also want to get free of a money judgment they don’t think should have been entered against them,” he said.

The high court is likely to hear arguments in the case in late fall, with a ruling by July of next year.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Nearly a Million Kids Vaccinated in Week 1, White House Says
Experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.
4 min read
Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Last week, U.S. health officials gave the final signoff to Pfizer's kid-size COVID-19 shot, a milestone that opened a major expansion of the nation's vaccination campaign to children as young as 5. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Education How Schools Are Getting Kids the COVID Shot, and Why Some Aren’t
Some district leaders say offering vaccine clinics, with the involvement of trusted school staff, is key to helping overcome hesitancy.
5 min read
A girl walks outside of a mobile vaccine unit after getting the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccine, outside P.S. 277, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Education Biden Administration Urges Schools to Provide COVID-19 Shots, Information for Kids
The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host vaccine clinics for kids and information on benefits of the shots.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)