NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A Fifth Circuit panel listened Monday to arguments over why a Louisiana charter school with a mostly white student body should be allowed to stay open in a mostly black town without adhering to a decades-old federal desegregation order.
Concordia Parish, which stretches 70 miles along the Mississippi River through eastern central Louisiana, has been under federal desegregation consent decree requirements for almost four decades. Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.
With those requirements in mind, Delta Charter School was given the go-ahead in 2013 to open in Concordia Parish, in the predominantly-African American town of Ferriday, by a federal judge under the condition its student body would reflect the racial makeup of the school district.
As of the 2000 census, Concordia Parish was 57 percent white and 40 percent black.
To date, 382 students attend Delta Charter School, according to its page on Great Schools, a website that tracks charter schools statewide and lists their ratings and makeup.
According to Great Schools, Delta is currently 77 percent white and 19 percent black.
In February 2017, U.S. Judge Dee D. Drell in Alexandria found that Delta had violated the terms of the parish’s court-ordered desegregation plan and asked both the school and the parish school board for proposals on how to move forward.
The school board had asked, and Judge Drell agreed, that Delta should also provide transportation to students in the hope that doing so would make it more possible for more black students to attend.
But an attorney for Delta told a panel of Fifth Circuit judges Monday that the school does not have a policy of admitting students based on race.
Mike Higgins of Schulman, Lopez, Hoffer & Addelstein in New Orleans, who represents the charter school, told the judges “the only requirement for admission…is a child must be of appropriate age.”
Higgins said other charter schools statewide might follow such admissions guidelines, as every school is different, and the parish’s desegregation requirements applies to its school district, whereas Delta Charter is a Type 2 charter school and Type 2 schools “are not tied to the regulations of the district.”
At the same time, however, Higgins also acknowledged that Delta must adhere to a federal consent decree that governs desegregation in order to get funding.
“We certainly do respect that we are bound to the consent order,” Higgins said.
Seeking clarification, U.S. Circuit Judge James C. Ho asked Higgins whether there has been “any finding that [Delta’s admission policy] was discriminatory.”
“No finding it was discriminatory,” Higgins replied, “just that it wasn’t in compliance” with the consent decree.
U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen A. Higginson asked Higgins for clarification on his statement that charter schools do not have to follow rules of the local school district.
“What’s your authority in asserting that every charter school in Louisiana becomes its own school district?” Higginson asked.
Higgins said it is based on a decision released in March of this year and applies only to Type 2 charter schools.
However, John Blanchard of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins and Guice LLP in Baton Rouge, arguing on behalf of the Concordia Parish School Board, told the federal appeals panel that Delta was “rapidly advancing their own agenda.”
“Type 2 charters are public schools entitled to public funds,” Blanchard said. “I don’t think that that quite makes them their own district.”
Blanchard said that at the time it opened, Delta was 85 percent white but is only one mile from a predominately black school.
“Delta is trying to relieve themselves of complying with the consent order… after repeatedly violating it,” Blanchard said.
“It is my understanding that they are repeatedly trying to modify their transportation agreement,” he added.
U.S. Circuit Judge Edith B. Clement asked, “But what if it’s not only the black students that want transportation?”
“I believe, your honor, that they are obligated to comply with the transportation order,” Blanchard said.
Still, Clement didn’t seem completely convinced that providing transportation to students would help desegregate the school.
“Do you have any evidence that there are students who would benefit from transportation?” she asked.
An attorney for the federal government told the panel that the consent decree has a “racial balance requirement.” He said that if there is a difference in the racial makeup of applicants and enrollees, the school is required to “do some analysis.”
Higgins, Delta’s attorney, said technically anyone in the state who wants to attend Delta is entitled to.
He said the charter school is currently arranging to provide transportation, and that it does attempt to recruit and engage African-American students, “but it just hasn’t worked.”
“Students need to actively disengage from where they are and re-enroll in another school,” he said, indicating that could be part of the problem.
In answer to a question from the panel, Higgins confirmed that there is currently a waiting list for students wishing to attend Delta.
A June 2017 order from Judge Drell required Delta to recruit and enroll a Kindergarten class for the 2017-18 school year comprised of an equal number of black and white students.
Attorneys for Delta appealed that order.