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Appeals Court Upholds School Zoning Plan Aimed at Maintaining Racial Balance

A federal appeals court has upheld a Louisiana school district's student assignment plan intended to maintain racial balance just two years after the district had been freed of court supervision for desegregation.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously upheld Ascension Parish school district's 2006 plan to draw school attendance zones.

The 20,000-student district was declared unitary, or legally desegregated, in 2004. Two years later, when the Ascension school board 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 middle schools into account. The board cited a desire to maintain racial balance and its unitary status.

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

A federal district court initially held that the school system's plan was race neutral on its face and that evidence was lacking that the school board had any discriminatory motive in adopting it. But in 2011, a separate 5th Circuit panel issued a 2-1 ruling that cast doubt on the plan and ordered the district court to scrutinize it more closely.

The lower court held a three-day trial and again upheld the school district's plan, ruling that the plan did not use any explicit racial classifications and that no evidence supported the plaintiff's claim that the plan had a discriminatory effect on non-white students in a particular feeder zone.

In its Nov. 17 decision in Lewis v. Ascension Parish School Board, the 5th Circuit court panel upheld the district court.

The court said that even accepting the plaintiff's contention that the school district plan incorporated racial demographic data and projections, "it shows only that the board considered the same sort of data that the Supreme Court has refused to equate to a facial racial classification."

The appeals court also agreed with the district court that the plaintiff failed to show any discriminatory effects of the plan.

The appeals court opinion is extremely dense with the facts and the particulars of feeder patterns and district lines for Ascension Parish. The larger impact may be limited, though the opinion notes that the 5th Circuit court was agreeing with two other federal circuit courts that have ruled in recent years that school rezoning plans that classify students by geography are race neutral on their face.

The 5th Circuit also said that this case did not implicate (at least not significantly) the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. In that 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 panel said the Ascension Parish plan, by using geographic boundaries and broad demographic data to assign students, did not fall "within the ambit of Parents Involved, as that case addressed individualized student assignments that took into account the student's race and the overall racial makeup of the school."

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