Leader Blues

Sunday, July 01, 2007

TOP STORY >>Race ruling won't affect planning for new district

IN SHORT: A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday may not affect Jacksonville and PCSSD immediately, according to district attorney Sam Jones, but Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock School District, believes that the race-based school assignment plan that the high court declared unconstitutional in Seattle and Louisville will eventually have an impact on programs and school assignments in the local school districts.

Leader senior staff writer

While the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday found race-based, school assignment plans—similar to those in effect locally—unconstitutional, the ruling probably doesn’t apply to the Pulaski County Special School District or the North Little Rock School District and should not affect the future of a proposed Jacksonville school district.

At least that’s the opinion of PCSSD attorney Sam Jones and of state Rep. Will Bond, (D-Jacksonville), a lawyer who represents Jacksonville parents and officials who have rigorously promoted a stand-alone district for years. The state attorney general’s office agrees.

But an attorney for the Little Rock School District thinks the ruling could eventually have an effect locally.

By a 5-4 vote, the court found that race-based, student assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville public schools violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing due process and equal protection. The Seattle schools have never been under court order to desegregate and the Louisville district was released from court supervision in 2000 but continued to make assignments to ensure a degree of racial diversity. Jones and Bond say they think that’s a critical distinction.

Little Rock District
The Supreme Court ruling will probably change the way the Little Rock School District assigns students once the Pulaski County district is declared desegregated, a lawyer for the Little Rock district says.

Chris Heller, a lawyer for the Little Rock district, said Thursday that the ruling wasn’t likely to affect the district for now. The Supreme Court ruling apparently does not affect public school districts that remain under federal court order to desegregate.
“These are cases involving voluntary desegregation plans,” Heller said, referring to the Supreme Court cases. “Little Rock is involved in a (court-ordered) remedial plan.”

Heller said the 27,000-student Little Rock district should still be able to use race in assigning students to magnet schools and as part of its transfer policy — although that would likely change once the Pulaski County district attains a unitary, or desegregated, designation in federal court.

“We’ll clearly be governed by this decision as soon as the county achieves unitary status,” Heller said.

“We could not keep in place a system such as presently governs majority-to-minority transfers or assignments to magnet schools — where race is the only or at least the primary factor.”

Little Rock School District has been released from federal court oversight, so it could affect the way its students are assigned and possibly its use of majority-to-minority transfers, magnet schools and eligibility for a share of the roughly $60 million a year in state support of desegregation, but the other two districts in the county are still under court oversight.

But if the ruling does apply to the local districts, it could remove perhaps the most significant impediment to a stand-alone Jacksonville-area school district, according to Bond.

U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson has ruled that Jacksonville may not secede from PCSSD because all three districts in the county had not achieved unitary status and had not been released from the desegregation-consent decree.

If the decree were dissolved and federal court oversight ended, then presumably Jacksonville could proceed with efforts to form its own district.

Bond said racial diversity would not be a problem for a Jacksonville district.

“We are integrated. We need to take control of our local schools, make them world class and everybody (regardless of race) will want to go there,” Bond said.

The days of federal oversight may be numbered anyway.

Act 395 of 2007, sponsored by Bond, requires the state to hire a consultant by Oct. 1 to determine what needs to be done to achieve unitary status and release from the courts.

The act requires both PCSSD and NLRSD to file petitions for unitary or partial unitary status by Sept. 30 and to be declared unitary by June 14, 2008 to be eligible for financial incentives.

Toward that end, legislators appropriated $250,000 to reimburse costs of lawyers in moving forward.

“The state, through the attor-ney general, is working with the two remaining districts to help move their cases forward,” according to Gabe Holmstrom, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

“The state is also in the process of retaining an expert to assist in evaluating the unitary status of those two districts and moving the case forward where appropriate.

“In addition, the state looks forward to working with Judge (Andre) Roaf, the new director of the Office of Desegregation Monitoring, in that office’s ongoing work of evaluating the districts and assisting them in their continued efforts to operate in accordance with their desegregation plans and the law.”

Speaking of Thursday’s Su-preme Court ruling, Holmstrom said, “Our preliminary impression is that it will have a larger effect on the school districts after they are deemed unitary.”

“This court has carved out a narrow exception…for cases in which a school district has a history of maintaining two sets of schools in a single school system deliberatively operated to carry out a governmental policy to separate pupils in schools solely on the basis of race,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas—part of the majority—in a concurring opinion.

Jones says his interpretation, which would allow continued race-based assignment in the PCSSD and NLR school district, is based primarily on Thomas’ decision, Bond said.

“It may not apply here because …Pulaski County Special School District has not been declared unitary, so (assignment plans) are still in effect because of our desegregation agreements and federal court oversight,” he said.

Bond said Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion found that “There are some measures districts can take to insure desegregation.

Even if it doesn’t affect the local districts, the decision overturns decades of legal interpretation of the landmark Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education ruling, which resulted in the now-infamous desegregation of Little Rock schools at Central High School in 1957.

Nationwide, more than 1,000 districts use race as an assignment factor, according to some estimates, often through mechanisms such as transfer policies and magnet schools.

Kennedy wrote that racial diversity in public schools is a legitimate goal, but that it generally must be pursued by such measures as designing attendance zones or locating new schools to minimize racial isolation.

If those measures are inadequate, a district might justify an enrollment system that takes a student’s race into account, saying that both Seattle and Louisville districts failed to meet that test.

John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Intervenors and a major mover in the county’s desegregation-consent decree, did not return a telephone call.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.