Two Courts Aim to Move Education Beyond Race

By Mark Walsh — January 14, 2014 3 min read
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Two federal courts issued important rulings affecting race and education over the past week, serving reminders that those two issues remain inexorably entwined. But both decisions, in their respective ways, aim to move parts of the country beyond race.

One was the decision on Jan. 13 by a federal district judge in Arkansas to accept a settlement that will bring to an end a decades-long desegregation funding plan between the state and three Little Rock-area school districts.

That action by U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. received a lot of nationwide media attention, given the historic role played by Little Rock and Arkansas in the long national struggle to desegregate the schools.

Education Week‘s Evie Blad has the details in the District Dossier blog of the settlement that will phase out once and for all some $70 million in annual desegregation aid the state provides to the Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County Special school districts.

A few days earlier, another federal court decision touching on a different Southern state’s legacy of race discrimination in education received far less nationwide attention.

On Jan. 10, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, upheld the dismissal of a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama’s property-tax system for public schools.

The suit was filed on behalf of black and white schoolchildren in Sumter and Lawrence counties, part of the state’s “Black Belt” of poor school systems serving mostly African-American students. The 14th Amendment equal-protection challenge argued that the state constitution’s ad valorem tax provisions are “rooted in [the state’s] historically racially discriminatory policies.”

The suit contended that counties and school systems in the Black Belt have been disadvantaged by low valuation of farm and timber land in their jurisdictions and the state constitution’s limits on property tax millage rates.

A federal district court ruled that while some provisions of Alabama’s constitution were enacted with racially discriminatory intent, later amendments to some of those provisions were primarily motivated by financial considerations. The district court further held that on a statewide basis, “Alabama’s black citizens and black public school students were not disparately impacted by the challenged provisions.”

In its decision in I.L. v. State of Alabama, the 11th Circuit court panel upheld the district court, saying that one key remedy sought by the plaintiffs, the removal of millage caps, would be unlikely to lead to greater funding of public education. One reason is that voters in Lawrence and Sumner counties have already rejected efforts to raise taxes to the maximum level currently allowed, the court said.

On the issue of the low valuations of some property classifications, the appeals court accepted the district court’s view that the relevant state constitutional provisions, enacted in 1972, were motivated by financial considerations and not racial discrimination.

The plaintiffs argued to both courts that Alabama enshrined its historically low property assessments at a time when many white parents were fleeing the public schools amid desegregation, leaving behind poorly funded, mostly black schools.

The plaintiffs’ pointed to something said by then-Gov. George C. Wallace in 1971 to private school parents in Bibb County: “I think it’s a horrible thing that you people have to pay taxes to support public schools. Then you have to dig in again to pay for quality education for your children in a private school.”

The appeals court said that the district court had properly taken account of Alabama’s long history of racial discrimination, but that it had found that the 1972 property tax amendments were not motivated by race bias.

“In deciding this difficult appeal, we are cognizant of Alabama’s deep and troubled history of racial discrimination, and given the evidence at trial, we share in the district court’s concern regarding Alabama’s public education system,” the appeals court said, citing language in the district court opinion that the state’s “inadequately funded public school system ... hinders the upward mobility of her citizens, black and white alike, especially in rural counties.”

But courts, the appeals panel concluded, “are not always able to provide relief, no matter how noble the cause.”

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