Federal appellate court rules Tennessee district’s student assignment plan does not violate African-American students’ equal protection rights

Spurlock v. Fox, No. 12-5978 (6th Cir. May 10, 2013)

Abstract: A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (MI, OH, KY, TN) three-judge panel has ruled that a Tennessee school district’s student assignment plan does not violate African-American students’ Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights.  The panel concluded  that the plan does not classify students by race, and that there was no segregative intent which would have shown de jure segregation.  Applying a rational basis review, it found that the district had provided a legitimate state interest for the plan, namely to address the problem of school building under-utilization.

Facts/Issues: After having attained unitary status, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville (MGN) was released from a court order desegregation plan in 1998.  Although its schools were no longer segregated de jure, they remained segregated de facto due to private preferences reflected in housing patterns.  Between 1998 and 2008 MGN attempted to ameliorate the effects of the de facto segregation by assigning students on a geographic basis through “clusters” in an attempt to reduce racial isolation. However, this plan led to the under-utilization of schools.

Most clusters were geographically contiguous.  Some, however, included noncontiguous zones—that is, areas that were considered part of the cluster even though they were not adjacent to the rest of it.  Students from a cluster’s noncontiguous zones, like students from elsewhere in the cluster, were assigned to the comprehensive high school in the cluster, and MGN provided them with free school-bus transportation for that purpose.  The noncontiguous zones included the poor and predominantly black Pearl-Cohn Cluster, which was linked to the comparatively well-off and racially diverse Hillwood Cluster.

After studying the problem for two years, MGN developed a rezoning plan in 2008 that would result in students being assigned to schools in their neighborhoods.  While the plan alleviated the problem of under utilization of buildings, it increased racial segregation in some of the schools.

The task force that developed the plan, which the school board ultimately approved, was aware from the demographic data compiled that its neighborhood attendances would result in some increased racial isolation. According to the Task Force, the new outside schools designated for noncontiguous-zone students were those that had the capacity to take in more students and stood to gain more from a diverse student body.  The plaintiffs, however, claim that the newly designated schools were inferior to the schools to which they had been bused under the old plan.  This inferior option, they allege, effectively directed the overwhelmingly black student population in noncontiguous zones away from the racially diverse schools in higher-income neighborhoods and toward the racially isolated schools in their own poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

The number of under-utilized schools declined approximately 25 percent after the Rezoning Plan’s implementation.  This indicates that the Rezoning Plan has made material progress on the issue that has been at the forefront of reform efforts for a number of years. However, black student enrollment dropped in the Hillwood Cluster from pre-Plan levels of 37.5 percent to 25.5 percent in the 2011-12 school year.  In all, 790 fewer black students were enrolled in the Hillwood Cluster schools during the first year after the Rezoning Plan’s implementation.  The decline in the number and percentage of black students attending the relatively diverse and academically superior schools in the Hillwood Cluster is the crux of the plaintiffs’ argument.

A class action suit on behalf of all African-American students in MGN’s district was filed in federal district court, alleging the student assignment plan violated the students’ Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights because it segregated students by race. Following a trial, the district court ruled in MGN’s favor.

The court, using a three-step test to analyze the equal protection claim, first found the rezoning plan did not facially classify students by race.  It then addressed the question of de jure segregation, which requires proof of acts with a segregative purpose that actually result in increased or continued segregation in the public schools.  It found that there was a segregative effect and that the segregative effect resulted from the implementation of the rezoning plan.

However, the court rejected the de jure segregation claim because it found that the students had failed to prove that the board intended to segregate students by race.  Finally, it held that the plan passed muster under the deferential rational-basis standard because the plan was rationally related to legitimate governmental interests.

Ruling/Rationale: The Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the lower’s court’s judgment.  It began its analysis responding to the students’ contention that the rezoning plan classifies students on the basis of race.  The panel rejected the student’s reliance on the holding in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (PICS), 551 U.S. 701 (2007), that the use of a student’s race in assigning that student to a particular school was a  racial classification that could only be justified if the classification was “narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”

The panel concluded that PICS had no factual similarity to the present case.  It stated that the students were “unable to cite any provision of the Rezoning Plan that classifies students by race or that uses race as a factor in school assignment because there is no such provision.”  It stressed that the “only factor that determines a student’s school choices is his or her place of residence, regardless of race.”

The panel also found unpersuasive the students’ argument that the task force’s collection and use of racial demographic data in developing the rezoning plan showed classification by race.  It noted that racial classification requires more than the consideration of racial data.

The panel pointed out: “If consideration of racial data were alone sufficient to trigger strict scrutiny, then legislators and other policymakers would be required to blind themselves to the demographic realities of their jurisdictions and the potential demographic consequences of their decisions.”  It noted that there was no support for the students’ argument, citing the PICS statement that “the use of racial demographic data in policymaking, so long as the policy itself does not classify people by race.”  According to the panel, “the requirement that legislative classifications be color-blind does not demand demographic ignorance during the policymaking process.”

The panel, likewise, found unavailing  the students’ claim that “geography-based school-assignment policies are unconstitutional because they are really nothing more than race-based policies in disguise.”  It pointed out that accepting such an argument “would mean that any neighborhood-school policy adopted in a community with racially identifiable housing patterns is unconstitutional.”  The panel stated:

Racial imbalance in the schools does not, in itself, establish a constitutional violation. The Constitution imposes no duty on school officials to correct segregative conditions resulting from factors over which they have no control, such as residential patterns, and the failure to anticipate the effect on racial composition of the schools of adherence to a neighborhood school policy does not signify that a school board has created a dual system, absent a showing of segregative intent.

The panel, having concluded that MGN’s plan employed no racial classification in determining a student’s school assignment, took up the issue of de jure segregation.  It stated that in order for a plaintiff to succeed on such a claim he must show: “(1) action or inaction by public officials (2) with a segregative purpose (3) which actually results in increased or continued segregation in the public schools.”  After reviewing the record, the panel agreed with the district court’s finding that there was no segregative intent at play.

The panel rejected the students’ repeated attempt to introduce the collection and use of racial demographics “in support of their contention that the Rezoning Plan was intended to segregate students by race.”  It stated: “The claim that considering demographic data amounts to segregative intent flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s holding that “disparate impact and foreseeable consequences, without more, do not establish a constitutional violation.”

The panel again pointed out that the Supreme Court in PICS “has acknowledged that demographic data is used in a variety of legislative and policymaking contexts, and it has made clear that the use of such data, without more, does not offend the Constitution.”  It also found “there is no evidence in the present case that racial demographic data was used to create race based loopholes and exceptions in an otherwise geographically based scheme.”

While acknowledging the plan’s disparate impact on the students was relevant to the discussion of segregative intent, it was not dispositive because the negative impact of the plan was not so “overwhelmingly or suspiciously concentrated upon black citizens as to leave no room for an inference other than segregative intent.”  It noted that the plan contained a number of provisions that benefited schools in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by African-Americans.

The panel also noted that the “district court’s uncontested findings further show that there was a significant drop in the percentage of black student enrollment in only one out of twelve geographic clusters, and even there black student enrollment remained at over 25 percent.”  It emphasized that MGN had offered a number of non-discriminatory reasons for the district’s reform efforts, primarily the under-utilization problem.

Having found the evidence overwhelming supported the finding “that the Rezoning Plan was not adopted or implemented with a segregative intent,” the panel concluded that the students failed to satisfy the segregative-intent element of a de jure segregation claim.  As a result, it declined to address MGN’s “alternative argument for affirmance on the basis that the Plan’s segregative effect was too marginal to be legally cognizable.”

Because the panel concluded that the plan does not classify students by race and was not adopted with segregative intent, the plan was subject to rational-basis review.  For the plan to pass constitutional muster under the rational basis test, it must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

While pointing out that MGN had offered of legitimate state interests served by the rezoning plan, the panel only addressed the under-utilization interest.  The panel  said, “The Board’s interest in remedying this problem and attaining a more efficient allocation of educational resources indisputably qualifies as a legitimate state interest.”  Further, it found measures in the plan not only “related to” building utilization, but “actually solved the problem in a significant portion of the underutilized schools.”

The panel, therefore, concluded: “This is more than enough to show that the Rezoning Plan passes constitutional muster.”  However, it warned that the finding of constitutionality did not amount to “a judicial endorsement of [the plan's 'success'."  The panel noted that the plan had done little to address significant educational problems other than school building under-utilization.

Spurlock v. Fox, No. 12-5978 (6th Cir. May 10, 2013)

[Editor's Note: In August 2012, Legal Clips summarized a Nashville Public Radio story on wpln.org reporting that the Nashville, Tennessee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) planned to appeal a court ruling that Nashville Metro Schools’ (NMS) attendance zones do not intentionally discriminate against African-American students.  However, federal district court Judge Kevin Sharp found that NMS’ plan essentially leads to segregation.]

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