Monday, August 29, 2016
In a Rare Case, School District Does Not Use Demographic Change As an Excuse to Give up on Integration
In 1970, the United States brought suit against the Tyler Independent School District in Texas. That lawsuit initiated what would become nearly a half-century desegregation case. Last week, both the United State and the school district agreed that the district had reached unitary status, meaning that it had eliminated the vestiges of discrimination to the extent practicable. The district court then entered an order closing the case.
For those that have read this blog before, you might expect a series of critiques to follow news that a court had relieved a district of its desegregation obligation, but based on the court's description of the facts, this one appears to be the real deal. The court explained that "the number and percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in TISD schools has risen dramatically since 1970, from 0.6% to 37.1% in the 2007-08 school year to 45.7% now." This is normally the type of fact that precedes the conclusion that demographic shifts have overwhelmed a district's desegregation efforts and, thus, it cannot be held accountable for current segregation patters. In fact, this was the exact line of reasoning in Freeman v. Pitts, in which the Court held that DeKalb County, Georgia, no longer needed to pursue integration in student assignments.
The district court in the instant case, however, did not have to go there because
[a] review of the parties’ statistical report, Joint Motion at 6-7, and the recent Compliance Report, reveals that there are few schools in any of the grade-level categories that reflect either a higher or lower percentage of student enrollment by race. None is significant when viewing the TISD enrollment statistics overall. Further, as the parties point out, of the eight categories of enrollment showing a somewhat higher or lower percentage compared to the averages for TISD overall, four of them reflect schools that are proceeding under one or the other of the Court’s two most recent attendance zone modifications approved in conjunction with the construction and opening of new or renovated schools. . . . These coincide with four of the five highest variations from the average, none of which is concerning.
. . .
Here, the enrollment statistics convincingly reveal that TISD has achieved the desegregation goal for student assignments in its schools at all levels. Further, having reviewed the statistical compilations from the last several years of TISD’s Compliance Reports, the Court finds that TISD has maintained this student assignment status and operated as a unitary system during that period.
First, assuming no egregious inequalities were papered over, credit is due the school district for taking steps to maintain integrated schools for an extended period of time, notwithstanding significant demographic changes in the district. Second, that this district had the capacity and commitment to do so begs the question of why the United States Supreme Court and lower courts have been so quick to absolve other districts of their obligations. As I have argued elsewhere, the mere instance of demographic shifts is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether a district has carried out its affirmative obligation under Green v. New Kent County to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination root and branch. The question of whether the district has discharged its duty should always precede the question of demographic shifts. Otherwise, a district acting in less than good faith could just stall in its desegregation efforts in hope that inevitable demographic shifts will eventually relieve it of its duty. Unfortunately, far too many districts seemed to adopt this route over the decades.
Third, demographic shifts raise causal questions, but demographic shifts are not dispositive on those questions. Demographic shifts might be a result of a district's student assignment policies themselves, might account for only a portion of segregation, might have produced segregation only because the district failed to act, or might have been the dominant cause of current segregation. Too often, however, courts have jumped to the last conclusion without giving any serious attention to the other possibilities. In effect, the occurrence of demographic shifts has acted as an affirmative defense for districts, placing the burden of proof on plaintiffs, which, of course, is counter to the doctrine articulated in Keyes v. New Kent County.
Fortunately, the Tyler Independent School District appears to have cut through all these legal questions and loopholes by simply doing the right thing.