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Appeals Court Upholds Nashville Student Assignment Plan

A federal appeals court on Friday rejected claims from black parents that a student assignment plan for the Metropolitan Nashville school district led to unconstitutional resegregation of the schools.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously that although the 2008 student assignment plan modestly increased racial isolation in some schools, it did not classify students by race and was aimed primarily at improving the utilization levels of school buildings in the 81,000-student district.

"In the absence of any constitutional infirmity, it is not the province of the courts to dictate and supervise local school policy," the court said in its opinion in Spurlock v. Fox.

The case concerns the student assignment plan developed in 2008 to replace one that had been in effect for some 10 years after the school district that once practice de jure segregation of black and white students was declared unitary, or legally desegregated. (The district's website shows that student enrollment in the system is currently 47 percent black, 33 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent American Indian or other.)

The district's post-unitary assignment plan was largely based on where students lived, with clusters of high schools and feeder middle and elementary schools. The 1998 plan included a number of so-called noncontiguous attendance zones that generally involved busing black students from poor neighborhoods to racially diverse schools in higher-income neighborhoods. But that plan led to under-utilization of many schools and overcrowding at others, an issue policymakers struggled for several years to address.

In 2008, a task force made up of an equal number of black and white participants came up with a plan that, among other things, changed the noncontiguous zones to "choice zones." Under the plan, students from the noncontiguous zones could either begin attending their neighborhood school or continue to be bused to a school in the same cluster where they had been bused before, but not necessarily to the same racially diverse schools they had attended under the 1998 plan.

The plan was approved by the Nashville-Davidson County school board. It was soon challenged in court by two black families and later expanded to a class action involving other families adversely affected by the change. The suit claims that the assignment plan effectively directed the overwhelmingly black student population in the noncontiguous zones into inferior and more racially isolated schools. The suit, backed by a group called the Tennessee Alliance for Progress, alleged that the new assignment plan resulted in resegregation that violated the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

A federal district court in Nashville upheld the plan after an 11-day bench trial. In its May 10 decision, the 6th Circuit court affirmed the district court.

First, the appeals court panel rejected the challengers' claim that the school district was classifying students based on race because its geography-based assignment plan relied on detailed racial and ethnic data about residential neighborhoods in Nashville.

"We find the plaintiffs' argument unpersuasive," the court said. "Racial classification requires more than the consideration of racial data." The court noted that in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sharply curtailed the ways K-12 schools could take race into account, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's controlling concurrence cited "drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods" as one race-conscious action that remained permissible.

Next, the 6th Circuit court reviewed the district court's decision that while the 2008 assignment plan resulted in more racial segregation, it was not carried out with any segregative intent. The appeals court said the task force was charged with addressing the longstanding problem of underutilization of some campuses and that it went through a thorough and open deliberative process in coming up with its plan.

"There is no proof to justify the inference that the Task Force obtained racial demographic data in furtherance of an intent to segregate the Nashville school system," the appeals court said.

The court said the evidence suggests the assignment plan did help improve the utilization of school buildings in the district, but has apparently not done much to improve overall academic achievement or to close a persistent racial achievement gap in the district.

"Nashville public school students as a whole were doing poorly before the plan and continue to do poorly after the plan," the court said, adding that the plan's "effect on racial and socioeconomic diversity, although not dramatic in one direction or the other, appears to have drifted in the direction of increasing isolation."

Nevertheless, the plan does not violate the equal-protection clause, the court concluded.

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