Court Accepts Voting-Rights Case Involving School Takeover Law

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to step into a debate about whether state efforts to intervene in the management of local school districts triggers protections under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The high court, acting in the week before the formal opening of its new term, said it would hear an appeal from the state of Texas, which argues that the state should not have to seek approval from the federal Department of Justice each time it wants to send a state monitor or management team to a troubled district.

Texas is covered by Section 5 of the voting-rights law. That section requires states and counties with a history of discrimination in voting to seek federal approval of any change in laws or procedures affecting voting. Section 5 covers all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. It also covers certain jurisdictions in California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota. ("State Takeovers Run Afoul of Voting Rights Act," Sept. 11, 1996.)

The dispute in Texas v. U.S. (Case No. 97-29) concerns a 1995 law that gave state education officials an array of tools for intervening in districts with financial or educational deficiencies.

The state submitted the law to the Justice Department for "preclearance," or federal approval, under the Voting Rights Act, but said it did not believe most of its provisions required preclearance.

The state pointed out that the law does not allow state monitors to alter school district elections, set district tax rates, or change the overall spending in a school budget. The law also limits the duration of monitors' and management teams' authority to 90 days before requiring renewal.

Thus, such interventions are not really changes in voting as defined under the Voting Rights Act, the state argued.

Board 'Takeover' Seen

But the Justice Department disagreed, saying that in its view the Texas law allows for the "takeover" of an elected school board and the performance of many of its traditional functions.

The "replacement, de facto or otherwise, of an elected school board by an appointed master, management team, or board of managers" must be precleared on a case-by-case basis, the department said in a 1995 letter to the state.

Texas sued in federal district court in Washington, seeking a declaration that it would not need to get preclearance each time it wanted to send in a monitor or management team.

A special three-judge court said in a unanimous ruling in March that it could not grant such a blanket request.

The Supreme Court on Sept. 29 agreed to hear the state's appeal of that ruling.

"When we think a district needs a master or a management team, they need it right away, and it takes months to get preclearance" from the Justice Department, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

The agency sent a management team into the Wilmer-Hutchins school district last year, but only after waiting more than two months for the Justice Department to grant preclearance.

The state has begun initial intervention in 10 other troubled districts, Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The voting-rights question has also come up in New York City, where the Justice Department said Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act when he tried to oust the elected board of one of the school system's 32 subdistricts. Parts of New York City are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. ("Crew, Justice Department At Odds Over N.Y.C. Board," Nov. 27, 1996.)

The Texas case is likely to be argued before the high court in January, with a ruling by the end of the court's term in late June or early July.

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