Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Courts Grapple with Segregation’s “Long Shadows” in Education Cases

Last week, two federal courts rules in cases that involved the lingering effects of segregation on contemporary education. Last Monday, U.S. District Court D. Judge Price Marshall of the Eastern District of Arkansas approved a settlement that will end the State of Arkansas’ obligation under a 1982 agreement to pay three Little Rock-area school districts to aid integration efforts. Since 1989, the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts have received over $1 billion over their state appropriations to remedy Arkansas’ resistance to desegregation, most notably when the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School in 1957 and the closing of Little Rock’s public schools the year after. The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have now been declared integrated with Pulaski County needing to repair some facilities. The settlement requires the state to make payments through 2017, with final-year funding earmarked for facility construction projects.

In I.L. v. Alabama, No. 11-15464 (11th Cir. Jan. 10, 2014), the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of relief in a lawsuit that challenged the state’s education funding system. The 11th Circuit found in I.L. that two state constitutional amendments, which affect education funding in Alabama’s Black Belt counties, were financially and not discriminatorily motivated and thus did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The panel also found that while “impediments to public education funding arising from racially discriminatory state laws can constitute particularized and concrete injury for purposes of standing,” the plaintiffs could not meet the standing requirement of redressibility. The remedy that the plaintiffs sought—the removal of county and local millage caps on property tax—would have to be separately enacted, a result that is unlikely given county voters’ rejection of higher property taxes. Thus, the plaintiffs’ view that removing the caps would raise revenue for public education is speculative, the court found. In I.L., the plaintiff schoolchildren in Alabama’s Lawrence and Sumter counties sued to invalidate two sections of the state constitution that affect education funding: “millage caps (which limit the tax rate) and property classifications (which determine the property valuation rate used to calculate the amount of tax due).” The plaintiffs argued inadequacies created by amendments to the 1901 Alabama Constitution—that govern the state’s system of ad valorem property taxation—grew from taxpayers’ disinclination to pay for public education for black children after white schoolchildren were moved to private schools. Rejecting this claim, the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that the state’s system of education funding was financially, and not discriminatorily, motivated. The 11th Circuit held that the plaintiffs failed to show discriminatory intent because when the facially race-neutral property tax amendments were enacted, the resistance to property taxes for education came from farmers and timberland owners who feared large tax increases. The panel noted that while the U.S. Supreme Court has found that a provision of the Alabama Constitution violated equal protection because it was motivated by “overwhelming evidence of racial animus surrounding the Constitutional Convention of 1901,” that that finding did not involve the constitution’s property tax provisions. Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U.S. 222 (1985) (invalidating Alabama Constitution's felony disenfranchisement provision for persons convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude because discriminatory intent shown).

Like the Northern District Court of Alabama below, the 11th Circuit’s panel wrote of its concern about Alabama’s public education system:

Alabama continues to be plagued by an inadequately funded public school system — one that hinders the upward mobility of her citizens, black and white alike, especially in rural counties. . . . [As a result,] [t]he children of the rural poor, whether black or white, are left to struggle as best as they can in underfunded, dilapidated schools.  Courts, however, are not always able to provide relief, no matter how noble the cause.


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