A federal judge has dismissed a school-desegregation case against the Charleston County, S.C., public schools, ruling that the U.S. Justice Department and lawyers for black plaintiffs in the case have failed to prove their allegations that the unusual structure of the district violates the rights of black students.
The case was one of only two school-desegregation lawsuits that the Justice Department prosecuted in the federal courts during the Reagan Administration. The other was the combined school- and housing-desegregation lawsuit against Yonkers, N.Y., which the department won.
The Charleston County suit, which was filed in the waning days of the Carter Administration, charged that a 1967 state law that consolidated eight school districts in the county for fiscal purposes, but allowed the original districts to retain control over student and faculty assignments, served to subvert desegregation in the county.
But U.S. District Court Judge Sol Blatt Jr., after a nine-year legal battle and a lengthy trial, ruled this month that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that lawmakers intended to discriminate against black students when they passed the law.
“Although this court finds that the act was passed without discriminatory intent, this court does find that the act has had a limited discriminatory effect in the operation of the schools in Charleston County,” Judge Blatt ruled.
But, he continued, “because the plaintiffs can have no remedy unless the passage of the act was enacted with discriminatory intent and the act has a discriminatory effect... the complaint must be dismissed.” The Consolidation Act
Backers of the consolidation act in question say that its primary purpose was to even out wide disparities in the resources available to the eight independent districts in the county, some of which were on the verge of bankruptcy when the measure was introduced.
As originally proposed, the legislation would simply have consolidated all eight districts into one countywide district. But in order to secure the measure’s passage, its backers had to compromise with legislators who opposed ending local control over the schools.
The resulting law allowed eight “constituent” districts to retain control over teacher hiring and assignments and students assignments and discipline. Most other powers were vested in the central board.
The Justice Department and blacks who intervened in the case argued that the compromise violated the equal-protection rights of black students because it enabled the districts, four of which are majority white and four of which are majority black, to avoid a countywide desegregation plan.
But Judge Blatt ruled that most of the county’s schools are as desegregated as possible, given the demographic makeup of the constituent districts.
A spokesman for the Justice Department would not indicate last week whether department officials planned to appeal the ruling.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 1990 edition of Education Week as In Charleston, Desegregation Case Dismissed