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Supreme Court Declines to Weigh Nashville Assignment Plan

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal from black parents that a student assignment plan for the Metropolitan Nashville school district led to unconstitutional resegregation of the schools.

The justices declined without comment to take up consideration of the student assignment plan developed in 2008 to replace one that had been in effect in the Nashville-Davidson County school system for some 10 years after a district that once segregated black and white students was declared unitary, or legally desegregated. 

The 1998 plan was largely based on where students lived, with clusters of high schools and feeder middle and elementary schools. The 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 an underuse of some schools and overcrowding at others.

The 2008 plan 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 new plan was challenged by two black families and later expanded to a class action involving other families adversely affected by the change. The suit claimed that the assignment plan effectively directed the overwhelmingly black student population in the noncontiguous zones into inferior and more racially isolated schools, in violation of the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

Both a federal district court in Nashville and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, upheld the 2008 plan.

In a May 10 decision, the 6th Circuit court 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.

The appeals court also held that although the plan had not improved overall academic achievement or closed a persistent racial achievement gap in the district, the plan did not violate the equal-protection clause.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Spurlock v. Fox (Case No. 13-196), the black parents said that more guidance was needed from the justices on ways in which school districts may take race into account in student assignments.

"The question of school desegregation ... is not about to go away," the parents' brief said.

The school district told the justices in a brief that the case had a unique set of facts and that the 6th Circuit applied settled law in upholding the 2008 plan.

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