A federal appeals court has ruled that more than three decades of court-ordered desegregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools should end. The ruling all but closes the landmark case that cleared the way nationwide for the use of busing and race-based student assignment as tools to eradicate segregated schools.
“This ruling will allow the community to focus on education, instead of the politics of an old desegregation order,” said Larry Gauvreau, a plaintiff in the case who is running for a seat on the district school board next month.
While the board voted unanimously not to appeal the Sept. 21 ruling, vowing instead to move forward with a school choice plan that does not use race as a factor, lawyers representing African-American parents are still weighing their legal options.
The case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but some believe that the justices would not likely agree to hear it after the district court and the full court of appeals declared the school system unitary, or free of the vestiges of segregation.
“I believe that we have in fact achieved unitary status,” said Eric J. Smith, the superintendent of the 108,000-student district. “Not just by the legal definition of the courts, but the efforts of the board and the community have really created a new Charlotte.”
But Arthur Griffin, the chairman of the school board, believes the district still suffers from serious inequality among schools based on race.
In a 7-4 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., upheld the U.S. District Court ruling in 1999 that the Charlotte- Mecklenburg schools had eliminated the last traces of a segregated school district. Last year, a three-judge panel of the appeals court overturned the lower-court ruling on a 2-1 vote, which led to an appeal to the full court.
In the majority opinion, Judge William B. Traxler Jr. wrote: “In sum, the ‘end purpose’ of federal intervention to remedy segregation has been served, and it is time to complete the task with which we were charged—to show confidence in those who have achieved this success and to restore to state and local authorities the control of their school system.”
The ruling means the district can no longer rely on blaming the federal court’s orders for its desegregation policies, contended Bill S. Helfand, a Houston lawyer representing white parents who in 1997 challenged the district’s use of busing and magnet programs to desegregate its schools.
That lawsuit was broadened to include the entire desegregation plan under the case known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which led to the historic 1971 Supreme Court decision allowing the use of mandatory busing to integrate schools.
The absence of federal court oversight of the district would mean that political, educational, and social pressures must compel Charlotte- Mecklenburg to address the resegregation of its 141 schools, argued Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Ms. Mickelson wrote a recent study that found ability grouping and tracking were resegregating the district’s students. (“Charlotte District, Still in Limbo, Presses Ahead With Choice Plan,” Sept. 5, 2001. )
“The force of the law is critical for the kind of change we’re talking about,” she said.
In their dissenting opinion on the issue of unitary status, Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Robert B. King wrote: “Nothing yet demonstrates that [the district] has eliminated all vestiges of the unlawful discrimination that has long permeated its school system. ... These successive generations of parents and children have been slowly starved by a well-meaning—but irresolute—governing body, whose sins have been absolved by the court below. ... “
The strength of the dissenting opinion will be taken into account, along with other factors, before a decision is made about proceeding to the Supreme Court, said James E. Ferguson II, a Charlotte-based lawyer representing the African-American families in the case.
If the case is appealed, it could derail for a second time the district’s new student- assignment plans, which are slated to start next fall. A similar plan was scrapped last year when the lower court’s ruling was reversed.
Mr. Ferguson added that “some good” did come out of the appellate court’s rulings. The court ruled 6-5 on Sept. 21 that the district’s magnet program, which used race to assign students, was not illegal. The judges also unanimously agreed to lift an injunction that would have barred the district from using race as a factor in other programs.