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5th Circuit Frees Two Texas Districts From Desegregation Order

A federal appeals court has ruled that two small Texas school districts do not have to comply with restrictions on student transfers under a broad 1970 desegregation order because those districts had desegregated voluntarily in the 1960s and were not defendants in the original lawsuit.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, issued the decision June 24 in Samnorwood Independent School District v. Texas Education Agency .

The 112-student Samnorwood district and the 101-student Harrold Independent School District, both in the Texas Panhandle, had been required by the TEA to comply with the transfer provisions of the 1973 court order stemming from a desegregation case against numerous other districts and the state agency itself. Under the order, small school districts faced sanctions if they accepted inter-district transfer students who altered their racial makeup by more than 3 percentage points. (For larger districts, a 1 percent change could trigger the sanctions.)

At stake for the districts in the 2003-04 school year was a loss of $6,111 of state funds for the Samnorwood district for not reporting three transfer students, and $68,525 for the Harrold district for 12 unreported or nonexempt transfers.

The districts intervened in the long-running desegregation case to challenge the race-based limitations on transfers.

The 5th Circuit court held that the TEA overstepped its authority under state law and the desegregation order by sanctioning the two school districts.

The "use of an arbitrary percentage as a proxy for intentional discrimination ... cannot substitute for actual evidence" of discrimination by the districts, the court said. "Allowing these two school districts to remain under the modified order would improperly impose a desegregation remedy where there has been no showing or finding of a constitutional violation."

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