In an important ruling involving race in K-12 education, a federal judge has upheld the Lynn, Mass., school district’s 15-year-old program of voluntary desegregation, which takes race into account in student transfers to and from neighborhood schools.
In a 162-page opinion on June 6, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner of Boston rejected arguments from a group of parents of both white and nonwhite Lynn students that the district’s school assignment plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law.
“K-12 education involves a setting in which diversity has a different resonance than in any other,” the judge said in accepting the district’s rationale for its race- conscious plan. She noted that the Lynn plan did not involve racial preferences in competitive magnet school admissions, which have been struck down by some courts.
The ruling comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is close to deciding two cases involving the consideration of race in admissions at the University of Michigan. (“Admissions Case Could Have Impact on K-12 Education,” Dec. 11, 2002.)
The 15,400-student Lynn district, near Boston, instituted the voluntary plan in the late 1980s to combat growing racial imbalances in its 18 elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools. Under the plan, students may transfer out of their assigned neighborhood schools if the transfers would improve or have a neutral effect on racial balance in the sending or receiving schools. Transfers that would worsen racial balance in either school are prohibited.
Elementary schools are considered racially balanced if their minority enrollments are within 15 percent, plus or minus, of the overall percentage of minority students in the district. A range of 10 percent, plus or minus, is used in middle and high schools. The district’s enrollment last year was 42 percent white and 58 percent nonwhite, defined in the decision as African-American, Hispanic, and Asian.
Judge Gertner said the Lynn plan passed muster under the highest level of constitutional scrutiny because K-12 schools have a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity to foster good citizenship.
Chester Darling, the lawyer representing the plan’s challengers, said the ruling would be appealed.