Law & Courts

Advocates Hail Ruling Backing Desegregation Plan

By Caroline Hendrie & John Gehring — July 12, 2005 4 min read

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.”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Court Restores Officers' Immunity Over Seizure of High School Athletes in Peeping Probe
A federal appeals court ruled in the case of two campus officers involved in detaining football camp participants for hours of questioning.
4 min read
Image of cellphones.
Law & Courts Appeals Court Weighs Idaho Law Barring Transgender Female Students From Girls' Sports
The three-judge federal court panel reviews a lower-court ruling that blocked the controversial statute and said it was likely unconstitutional.
4 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Federal Appeals Court Backs Socioeconomic-Based Admissions Plan for Boston 'Exam Schools'
The court denies an injunction to block the plan for next year and says considering family income in admissions is likely constitutional.
3 min read
Image shows lady justice standing before an open law book and gavel.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court Wary About Extending School Authority Over Student Internet Speech
In arguments, the justices looked for a narrow way to decide a case about the discipline of a cheerleader over a profane Snapchat message.
7 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.
Members of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the court on April 23. The justices heard arguments Wednesday in a major case on student speech.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP