Law & Courts

Advocates Hail Ruling Backing Desegregation Plan

By Caroline Hendrie & John Gehring — July 12, 2005 4 min read
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Massachusetts education leaders and national desegregation advocates are praising a federal appellate ruling upholding the Lynn school district’s voluntary integration plan, which takes race into consideration in some student-assignment decisions.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, last month reversed a decision by a three-judge panel of the same court last fall that struck down the plan as unconstitutional. The June 16 ruling, by a 3-2 majority, marks the first time that a federal appeals court has upheld a voluntary integration plan for K-12 schools.

In its decision, the 1st Circuit court drew heavily from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger,which involved the use of race in admissions at the University of Michigan’s law school.

“The Lynn plan uses race 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 majority opinion said.

The Lynn assignment policy guarantees students admission to neighborhood schools, but if they want to transfer outside their attendance areas, the district weighs the impact of the moves on the racial and ethnic balance of the schools involved.

The lawsuit, Comfort v. Lynn School Committee, was brought in 1999 by parents whose children were prohibited from transferring because of the district’s policy. The decision last month will be appealed to the Supreme Court, according to lawyers representing the families.

The two dissenting appellate judges argued that the Lynn policy relied too strictly on racial considerations.

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

But lawyers for the school district and Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly argued successfully that if the 16-year-old plan were overturned, the move would lead to resegregation of the 15,000-student school system, located about 10 miles north of Boston. The attorneys general of Iowa, Maine, New York state, and Utah filed briefs supporting the district’s plan.

“This is an unambiguous victory for those who believe racial integration is a goal that districts should be allowed to pursue voluntarily,” said Chinh Quang Le, an assistant counsel with the New York City-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has worked on school desegregation cases around the nation.

“The decision is a strong endorsement of districts’ taking these efforts,” he said, “rather than feeling they are resigned to the residential pattern of segregation.”

‘Strong Public Policy’

Glen Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the ruling could strengthen the position of the state’s 21 other districts with voluntary desegregation plans.

“This was a very important case, and it represents strong public policy,” said Mr. Koocher, whose organization joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of Lynn’s policy by the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.

Thomas Fowler-Finn, the superintendent of the 6,700-student Cambridge, Mass., public schools, where a family’s income is considered in assignment decisions to help create more demographic diversity in schools, also applauded the decision.

“Race and ethnicity play an important factor in schools,” he said. “The public schools are really the only place where children from all ethnic backgrounds and across all income levels come together.”

Less than a week after the Lynn decision, a federal appeals court in San Francisco heard oral arguments in a similar student-assignment case involving the Seattle public schools. The 46,000-student district in 1998 began allowing students to choose from its comprehensive high schools, and used a series of tiebreakers, including race and ethnicity, to determine who would receive slots in schools that were oversubscribed.

A federal district court upheld the policy in 2001 against challenges from a local parents’ organization, but in a 2-1 decision last summer, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found the plan unconstitutional. The district was back in court last month asking the full panel of justices to allow it to reinstate the policy.

And lawyers for the Jefferson County, Ky., public schools argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, last month to keep a managed-choice plan that the district says helps maintain racial balance in its schools.

Mr. Le, the lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that since the Supreme Court has yet to rule on a voluntary desegregation plan at the K-12 level, the outcome of those cases will be significant.

“What the federal courts say about the issue,” he said, “is going to be law in the immediate future.”

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