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Court Casts Doubt on Race-Conscious Student Assignment Plan

A federal appeals court has cast doubt on a Louisiana school district's student assignment plan that had a goal of maintaining racial balance and had allowed the district to be freed of court supervision for desegregation.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled 2-1 on Thursday that a lower court must give greater scrutiny to the student assignment plan of the Ascension Parish school system.

The 20,000-student district, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, was declared unitary, or legally desegregated, in 2004. When the school board in 2006 was evaluating plans to deal with overcrowding at one of the district's four high schools, it took data about the proportion of African-American students and at-risk students at feeder schools into account. The board cited a desire to maintain its unitary status.

A father of two black children in the district sued, alleging that the board's consideration of race and selection of an option that placed more at-risk students in a particular feeder zone violated the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection clause.

A federal district court held that the school system's plan was race neutral on its face and that evidence was lacking that the school board had a discriminatory motive in adopting it.

In its Nov. 3 decision in Lewis v. Ascension Parish School Board, the 5th Circuit panel called for more factual development in the lower court to determine whether the plan involves race classifications and thus must pass muster under the highest level of constitutional analysis, known as "strict scrutiny."

The lower court must examine the school board's intent in adopting its plan and whether the plan unfairly affected black students more than white students, the appeals court said.

The lower court's "assumption that it might be justifiable to use racially based decisions for the 'benign' purpose of maintaining post-unitary 'racial balance' among the schools in the system is at least in tension with the Supreme Court's decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District," the majority said.

In that 2007 case, the high court sharply curtailed the permissible ways in which school systems that were not under court-supervised desegregation plans could consider race in student assignments.

The 5th Circuit majority said the Ascension Parish district could not address school overcrowding "by assigning individual students among the schools based upon disadvantaging one race over another in the assignment of at-risk students, even if the motive in doing so is the benign motive of maintaining unitary status."

Writing in dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King said the lower court properly analyzed the board's plan under a rational-basis test because the plan was facially race neutral and there was no evidence the board adopted with an intent to discriminate against minorities.

The majority's view "has potentially far-reaching and threatens to require the application of strict scrutiny to actions taken with a mere awareness of their effects on racial demographics," Judge King said.

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