Equity & Diversity

Mass. District’s Race-Based Transfer Policy Struck Down

By Caroline Hendrie — October 26, 2004 3 min read

In a legal victory for foes of race-conscious policies in K-12 schools, a federal appeals court last week struck down as unconstitutional a Massachusetts school district’s policy of using race and ethnicity to restrict student transfers.

The ruling against the Lynn, Mass., public schools marks the second time that a federal appeals court has scrutinized a district’s voluntary-integration plan in the wake of a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions last year on the use of race and ethnicity in university admissions.

The court opinion on this case is available online from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

In July, a San Francisco-based court held that the Seattle school system also had failed to justify its integration plan under principles the high court laid out in its 2003 rulings in companion cases involving the University of Michigan. (“Court Rejects Seattle Policy Weighing Race,” Aug. 11, 2004.)

In the Lynn case, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit unanimously concluded that racial diversity confers important benefits in elementary and secondary education. The panel also said the district had made a good case that those benefits were compelling enough to justify race-conscious policies under certain circumstances.

But the Boston-based court held that the way the 15,000-student district was going about trying to realize those benefits fell short by assorted constitutional yardsticks. For that reason, the court concluded that the district’s policy violates the 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law of the multiracial group of parents that challenged it in court.

“We take no joy in this conclusion—the school committee’s motivations here were noble,” U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote in the Oct. 20 opinion. “Nevertheless, while we may empathize with the school committee, this case aptly illustrates what government at every level should know: Charting a course that depends upon racial classifications is, in constitutional terms, a risky business.”

Yellow Light, or Red?

Even strong advocates of race-based policies to achieve classroom diversity conceded last week that, taken together, the Lynn and Seattle rulings signal to the nation’s school districts that they should tread lightly when making student-assignment decisions based on race.

“I couldn’t in good conscience say that school districts shouldn’t be cautious, and that these rulings shouldn’t be read to require greater caution from them,” said Chinh Quang Le, a lawyer with the New York City-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Lynn district.

Mr. Le said the “silver lining” of the 1st Circuit opinion was that the appeals court identified racial diversity in precollegiate education as a potentially compelling enough reason to make exceptions to the general constitutional principle to avoid race-based classification.

“What this court has found is that racial integration is important at the K-12 level,” Mr. Le said. Still, he said he was “immensely disappointed” by the outcome. The school system, backed by the state, had won approval of its system in the U.S. District Court in Boston last year.

A lawyer for the group of parents that sued the Lynn district said the nation’s schools should draw a different conclusion from last week’s ruling: “Forget about race-based assignments.”

“In this day and age, there’s no need to shuffle kids because of their color,” said the lawyer, Chester Darling, the president of the Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights, a public-interest legal organization in Boston.

Under Lynn’s plan, youngsters may not transfer to out-of-boundary schools that have a higher percentage of children of their own race if their home schools are out of racial balance under district guidelines. (“Mass. City Defends Use of Race in Assigning Students to Schools,” June 9, 2004.)

A critical reason that the Lynn policy fell short, the 1st Circuit Court panel held, was that it was aimed at achieving racial balance, rather than simply “a critical mass” of students of various demographic groups in each school. The court also said that the Lynn policy was overly mechanistic in its consideration of race, that the district had failed to give enough consideration to race-neutral alternatives, and that its policy lacked a plan for periodic review of the need to keep using race.

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