Connecticut Parents Ask Second Circuit to Reinstate Suit Over School Racial Quotas

Seeking to revive its constitutional challenge to statewide racial quotas capping enrollment of Black and Hispanic students at magnet schools, the Connecticut Parents Union told the Second Circuit on Monday it has standing to bring the case.

New York high school students listen to questions posed by their principal last year. (AP Photo/Kathy Willen, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) — In 2017, Connecticut’s commissioner of education imposed quotas on all so-called interdistrict magnet schools in the state, requiring each to ensure that at least 25% of its enrollment is comprised of “reduced-isolation students,” defined as anyone who is any combination other than Black or Hispanic, effectively mandating a quarter enrollment of white and Asian students.

Two years later, the Connecticut Parents Union brought a suit in federal court against the state’s education commissioner, Miguel Cardona, and other officials, challenging the 75% enrollment cap on Black and Hispanic students at magnet schools as a violation of the equal protection clause.

However, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill dismissed the case last year on grounds that the advocacy group lacked standing.  

On appeal to the Second Circuit, the organization told a three-judge panel Monday that it has clearly diverted more than enough resources in its opposition to the statewide racial quotas to satisfy standing requirements.  

Even scant evidence of the group’s “expenditure of resources that could be spent on other activities” was sufficient to give it standing, attorney Christopher Kieser from the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation argued during the 45-minute remote hearing.  

“The Parents Union had to vastly cut back on its advocacy of other laws, including a law that ended the felony arrests of parents who enroll their children in schools outside of their zoned district, and a lot of what the Parents Union does is direct advocacy work on behalf of special needs students who have individualized education plans,” Kieser told the judges. “They’ve had to cut back on that work as well so that they could devote some of their limited resources to the racial quota issue.” 

An injunction prohibiting enforcement of the statewide racial quota would allow the group to redirect its already narrowed resources back to other issues facing Connecticut families and children, Kieser wrote in a 31-page appeals brief

Representing the Connecticut state defendants, Assistant Attorney General Darren Cunningham argued the case was properly dismissed for lack of standing and was also rendered moot by a penalty waiver issued by the education commissioner after the appeal was filed. 

Reversing the district court’s dismissal has the potential to flood the federal courts with a deluge of challenges to nearly any law, Cunningham told the panel Monday. 

“If mere opposition to well-established state policy suffices to establish constitutional injury, virtually no interest group will lack standing in federal court,” he said. 

“And in this case for good matter, the plaintiff’s group does not even contain a parent or a student,” he added. “So it would allow such a group to challenge interdistrict magnet schools run by eight school districts in Connecticut…while containing no students.” 

Cunningham wrote in a brief to the Second Circuit that an August 2020 memo from the education commissioner “removed the financial penalty provision at the heart of CTPU’s challenge,” therefore rendering the claims moot.

The three-judge panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges José A. Cabranes and Gerard Lynch, appointed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, as well as U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero, a Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Southern District of New York.

The judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling in the case.

Cardona, Connecticut’s education commissioner named as the lead defendant in the parent group’s complaint, was recently tapped by President Joe Biden to run the U.S. Department of Education. 

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