‘Resegregation’ Claims in Tennessee Unravel

     (CN) – Rezoning black students in a low-performing Tennessee high school closer to their homes was not deliberate racial resegregation, the 6th Circuit ruled.
     The decision affirmed a May 2012 ruling by U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp, who found no evidence that the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education had intended to segregate students by race – even though its actions had a “segregative effect.”
     The controversy goes back to July 2008 when the divided Metro Nashville school board voted to modify the district’s student assignment plan, alternatively known as the “rezoning plan.”
     Among the modifications effected by the vote was the elimination of so-called “mandatory noncontiguous transfer zones,” a regime in which students in racially isolated geographical zones were bused to racially diverse schools in noncontiguous zones.
     Under the new plan, students in racially isolated zones were given the choice of attending schools in their neighborhoods or of continuing to be bused to the same noncontiguous zones, but not necessarily the same school they previously attended.
     In a 2009 complaint, Jeffrey and Frances Spurlock claimed that the modification violated their daughter’s rights under the equal protection clause by eliminating the practice of being bused to a good, racially diverse school and replacing it with two inferior choices: staying in a bad, racially isolated neighborhood school or being bused to a bad, racially diverse school.
     Sharp ruled in favor of the school district after an 11-day bench trial. On appeal, the family insisted that the rezoning plan classified students on the basis of race, and also that the District Court erred in finding no intent to segregate.
     They also said the plan should be tossed out, even absent a finding of racial classifications or intent to segregate, because it could not survive rational-basis review.
     A three-judge panel based in Cincinnati nevertheless concluded that “the plaintiffs have been 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.”
     “Instead, the plan classifies students on the basis of geography. The only factor that determines a student’s school choices is his or her place of residence, regardless of race,” Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote for the court.
     While 790 fewer black students were enrolled in the relatively diverse and academically superior schools in the district, “the negative impact of the rezoning plan is not so overwhelmingly or suspiciously concentrated upon black citizens as to leave no room for an inference other than segregative intent,” Gilman added. “To the contrary, the plan contains numerous provisions specifically benefitting the schools in underprivileged neighborhoods heavily populated by blacks.
     Citing “the district court’s uncontested findings,” Gilman also said “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.”
     “Moreover, the defendants in the present case … have offered a number of plausible nondiscriminatory explanations for their reform efforts, chief among them tackling the school under-utilization problem,” the 30-page ruling states.
     “In sum, the overwhelming weight of the evidence supports the district court’s finding that the rezoning plan was not adopted or implemented with a segregative intent,” Gilman added. “The plaintiffs have therefore failed to satisfy the segregative-intent element of a de jure segregation claim. We thus have no occasion to address the board’s alternative argument for affirmance on the basis that the plan’s segregative effect was too marginal to be legally cognizable.”

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