Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The district court has issued a new opinion in Lewis v. Ascension Parish Sch. Bd., 2014 WL 556677 (M.D. La. 2014), a case involving allegations that the district discriminated in the rezoning of its schools. Like Spurlock v. Fox, 716 F.3d 383 (6th Cir.2013) and Doe v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 665 F.3d 524 (3d Cir.2011), the court in Lewis had to navigate the complex post-Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle world, in which racial intent, racial classifications, and racial considerations all of different doctrinal relevance and potentially conflicted precedents.
The district court in Lewis had previously issued a summary decision granting the school district's motion for summary judgement, which was summarily overturned by the Fifth Circuit and remanded. The Fifth Circuit had intimated that the Third Circuit's holding in Lower Merion--that Justice Kennedy's opinion in Parents Involved was controlling and that assignment plans are subject to rational basis so long as they do not rely on individual racial classifications--was incorrect. The Fifth Circuit, however, indicated it need not reach those doctrinal question because certain factual issues needed to be addressed first.
In its new decision on remand, the district court offers what may be the most cogent post-Parents Involved analysis to date. Plaintiff's basic claim is that the district's new assignment plan segregates African Americans and provides them with unequal educational opportunities. The district court analyzes his claim based on three distinct doctrines. First, it asks whether a racial classification was employed in the assignment plan. If so, Parents Involved's strict scrutiny applies. Here, the court indicates there is no evidence of a racial classification. Awareness or consideration of race, alone, are insufficient to trigger strict scrutiny. Thus, the rational basis approach of Lower Merion would apply. On the one hand, this holding is another validation of districts' ability to voluntarily desegregate. On the other hand, the plaintiffs in Lewis were alleging segregation and, thus, this court makes clear that those claims still must meet the higher burden of Village of Arlington Heights v. Metro.
Second, the court analyzes the disparate impact of the plan and the extent to which it potentially gives rise to a claim of intentional discrimination per Arlington Heights. It finds that the assignment plan does.
Third, the court analyzes the school district's consideration of racial demographics, etc., in drawing the assignment zones. The court finds that these considerations, along with the impacts, create a triable issue of fact as to whether intent existed. The Court elaborated:
Here, the School Board also does not contest that the majority of the non-white students in the District are in the East Ascension High School feeder zone and that the majority of the white students in the District are in the Dutchtown High School and St. Amant High School feeder zones. With regard to the factors considered by the School Board when it adopted Option 2f, the School Board does not contest that its members considered race and socioeconomic status when they developed, evaluated, and adopted Option 2f. Unlike the students in Lower Merion, non-white and white students in the District have each been affected by Option 2f (i.e. assigned to different schools). Indeed, the School Board does not contest this fact. Further, the School Board does not contest that Option 2f assigns all students to schools based on their geographic location.
Unlike the court in Lower Merion, this Court is unable to consider all of the evidence presented until after a full trial on the merits. See Lower Merion, 665 F.3d at 542. However, given the evidence presented here, context of this matter, and factors considered by the School Board when it adopted Option 2f, the Court concludes that Varando and Child B are, in fact, similarly situated to white students in the Dutchtown High School and St. Amant High School feeder zones. Accordingly, the School Board's request that the Court dismiss Lewis' remaining Equal Protection claim on this basis is DENIED.
In short, the district court agreed with Lower Merion (and rejected plaintiffs argument for applying strict scrutiny), but found there are sufficient facts on which discriminatory purpose could be inferred (which would trigger strict scrutiny) and set the case for trial.