Federal Appeals Court Upholds Use of Race by Lynn, Mass., Schools

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A federal appeals court in Boston has narrowly upheld a voluntary desegregation plan in the Lynn, Mass., school district in a case that is being closely followed by supporters and critics of race-conscious policies in K-12 schooling.

In a 3-2 ruling on June 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit reversed a decision by a three-judge panel of the same court last October that had struck down the district’s student-assignment policy as unconstitutionally discriminatory.

The Comfort v. Lynn School Committee lawsuit was brought in 1999 by parents of students from a variety of races and ethnicities who had been denied requests to transfer to other schools because of the district’s policy. A lawyer for those families said they intended to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under the 15,000-student district’s assignment policy, students are guaranteed admission to their neighborhood schools. But if they wish to transfer to schools outside their attendance areas, the district weighs the move’s impact on the racial and ethnic balance of the affected schools.

The 1st Circuit court’s majority said the policy passed constitutional muster because “the Lynn plan is narrowly tailored to the defendants’ compelling interest in obtaining the benefits of racial diversity.”

The appeals court based its decision on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, a case involving the use of race in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School. The high court held that obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body could justify the use of race-conscious policies, at least in the context of an elite law school.

“The Lynn plan uses races in pursuit of many of the same benefits that were cited approvingly by the Grutter court, including breaking down racial barriers, promoting cross-racial understanding, and preparing students for a world in which ‘race unfortunately still matters,’ ” the 1st Circuit court’s majority opinion says.

Headed for High Court

The Lynn case is the first time that a federal appeals court has upheld a voluntary integration policy in the K-12 context by applying the Grutter case and a companion case known as Gratz v. Bollinger, which involved undergraduate admissions to the University of Michigan.

The two judges who dissented from the majority opinion in Comfort v. Lynn concluded that the Lynn policy involved the inflexible, mechanistic use of race and therefore ran afoul of the principles the Supreme Court laid out in Grutter and Gratz.

“Many good things can be said about the Lynn plan,” the dissenting opinion says. “But the overriding fact is that it unnecessarily inflicts racially based wounds on a large and diverse group of its students and, consequently, fails to satisfy the narrow-tailoring requirements set out in the Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who represented the Lynn district, hailed the ruling. “This case proves that race does matter and is a factor—a positive one,” he said in a statement. “We all benefit when people with different perspectives and different ethnicities come together in a learning environment.”

Chester Darling, a Boston-based lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the ruling did not surprise him, calling the Boston-based appeals court “a very liberal circuit.” “You can’t define people by their color and that’s what this has done,” he said, adding that he thought the court had misapplied the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Michigan law school case. “This has nothing to do with graduate school,” he said. “This is about little kids, and they’re just moving them around like Chinese checkers.”

Even though the Supreme Court takes up only a fraction of the appeals it receives, Mr. Darling said he thought this case would stand a strong chance of being heard because at least one other federal appeals court decision has gone the other way.

Last year, a San Francisco-based federal court held that the Seattle school system had failed to justify its integration plan under principles the high court laid out in Grutter and Gratz.

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