Employing Race

When a district dismissed a good white teacher to maintain racial balance, did it violate her rights?

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Setting the stage for a significant ruling on affirmative action in education, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review whether a New Jersey school board violated federal law when it laid off a white high school teacher instead of an equally senior black teacher in order to promote staff diversity.

The court disregarded the advice of the Clinton administration in late June when it accepted the appeal of the Piscataway, New Jersey, school district. The district sought to maintain racial diversity in the business education department of Piscataway High School in 1989 by retaining the department's only black teacher while dismissing a white peer.

The Clinton administration, which once defended the district's actions, recently told the court that the case was too idiosyncratic to provide the basis for a major affirmative action ruling.

Affirmative action critics said the court's acceptance of Piscataway vs. Taxman would likely lead to a ruling restricting race-based employment actions that are not designed to remedy past discrimination. They pointed out that the conservative-dominated court has grown increasingly skeptical of race-conscious government action. "Racial preferences as a form of affirmative action are definitely on their way out," says Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator and president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "I think people see the handwriting on the wall."

Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, says the ruling should yield important guidance about when schools can take race into account in employment decisions. The NSBA urged the high court to uphold race-based employment decisions meant to foster diversity in public schools. "From an educational perspective," Gregory says, "we really need diversity among teachers."

The case involves a decision by the Piscataway board to reduce the positions in the business education department at the high school from 10 to nine. Faced with a choice between laying off the white teacher, Sharon Taxman, or a black teacher, Debra Williams, with equal seniority and similar qualifications, the board invoked its affirmative action policy for the first and only time. In past layoffs involving workers with equal qualifications, board members had flipped a coin.

The Department of Justice under President Bush sued on behalf of Taxman, arguing that the race-based layoff violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it was not tied to any past employment discrimination in the district. A federal district court ruled for Taxman and awarded her $ 143,000 in back pay and other relief. A federal appeals court concurred.

Three years after she was laid off, Taxman was rehired by the district and now teaches in a classroom next to Williams'.

Vol. 09, Issue 01, Page 14

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