U.S. News

School desegregation case flares in Massachusetts

BOSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to limit the use of race in assigning students to public schools is drawing Massachusetts into a legal dispute over school desegregation in one of its cities.

The state’s attorney general filed a legal brief on Tuesday urging the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts to deny a request to re-open a challenge to a voluntary race-based school assignment plan in Lynn, Massachusetts, a blue-collar city of 89,000.

The case is among the first challenges to surface since the Supreme Court on June 28 declared similar plans unconstitutional in Seattle and Kentucky, underlining the far-reaching effects of the 5-4 decision.

A group of parents who challenged Lynn’s 19-year-old desegregation plan in 1999 revived their case on July 3, days after the Supreme Court ruling.

Currently, Lynn students who wish to study in another school can be denied if the transfer alters the school’s racial balance. In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to review an Appeals Court decision that upheld the policy.

“We believe that the District Court’s judgment was correct at the time it was decided and remains so today,” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement accompanying her 22-page legal brief.

Chester Darling, a lawyer who brought the previous suit against Lynn, said he expects a costly legal fight that could end up before the Supreme Court.

“You don’t transfer kids because of their color, especially if you are the government, and that’s what they are doing,” he said. “We have urban school problems, and that’s a sad fact, but you don’t cure it by sprinkling white kids around into the black schools.”

In its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down voluntary programs adopted in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky, to attain racial diversity in public school classrooms.

In Massachusetts, 20 school districts have voluntary desegregation programs in place. Thirty-three years ago, black schoolchildren were pelted with rocks and bottles when they were bused into Boston’s white neighborhoods under a court-ordered school desegregation plan.

In her brief, Coakley appeared to draw upon Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in which he agreed the Seattle and Kentucky programs must be struck down but held that public schools may use ways other than race-based assignments to schools to foster diversity.

“The Supreme Court has affirmed that there are ways in which public school systems can maintain programs to provide the best education to every child regardless of race,” Coakley said. “We believe Lynn’s plan is constitutional.”