Law & Courts

Appeals Court Rejects District’s Magnet Policy

By Caroline Hendrie — March 22, 2005 2 min read
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A Louisiana school system says a federal appeals court was wrong when it held this month that the district’s policy for selecting youngsters for a public magnet school illegally discriminates against white students.

A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, agreed with Kevin Paul and Julie Ann Cavalier that the Caddo Parish school district was out of bounds when it denied the couple’s son entry to a selective middle school.

The 45,000-student district last week asked the full 5th Circuit appeals court to reconsider the panel’s 2-1 decision and to postpone the effect of any required changes to its policy until the 2006-07 school year. Like many schools established for the purpose of desegregation, the Caddo Magnet Middle School in Shreveport, the state’s third-largest city, had separate admissions criteria for black and white students when Hunter Cavalier applied for admission to the 6th grade for the 2002-03 school year. Hunter, who is white, had higher standardized-test scores than 67 of the black students accepted that year, according to court papers.

The appellate panel majority held on March 1 that the admission policy “is essentially a racial-balancing quota” of the type that the U.S. Supreme Court has frowned on.

In an opinion by Circuit Judge William L. Garwood, the panel rejected the district’s argument that its policy was justified by a consent decree reached in 1981 to settle a 1965 desegregation lawsuit.

A federal district court had ended its oversight of the magnet school in 1990, the appellate majority found, even though the district as a whole was not declared “unitary,” or free of the remnants of its segregated past.

“The 1981 consent decree no longer applies to [Caddo Magnet Middle School], and racial balancing by itself is not a constitutionally proper reason for employing racial classifications,” Judge Garwood wrote.

His opinion said the district’s policy ran afoul of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Gratz v. Bollinger that struck down the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions system, which automatically awarded points to black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants.

A Supreme Court companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger, upheld the university’s law school admissions policy, in part because it granted applicants individualized review. Grutter was applauded by advocates of race-conscious policies in K-12 schools because it held that achieving classroom diversity could justify distinctions based on race.

But Judge Garwood said that the Caddo Parish district had not relied on diversity as a rationale for its policy, but had instead cited the need for continued compliance with the 1981 consent decree.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jacques L. Weiner Jr. argued in a dissent that schools have broad discretion to pursue policies to remedy all vestiges of past racial discrimination. He said the Caddo Parish district “is still hard at the task of eradicating the pernicious effects of de jure segregation.”

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