Politics & Policy

Denying School Choice to African Americans

Edmund White (Photo: Pacific Legal Foundation)

Can the City and County of St. Louis prohibit an African-American boy from attending a public charter school because of his race? Most people wouldn’t believe that any government-run school system would impose such a discriminatory ban in this day and age, but the maddening situation one African-American third-grader and his family face proves otherwise.

La’Shieka White has been sending her son Edmund to Gateway Science Academy in the City of St. Louis since he was in kindergarten. By all measures, Edmund has excelled, with grades and test scores to prove it. Mrs. White and her husband recently moved with their three kids to a St. Louis County suburb because they wanted a yard and a home in a safer neighborhood. Any child in their new neighborhood who was white, Hispanic, Asian, or most any other race or ethnicity could lawfully apply to attend Gateway Science Academy, but Mrs. White was told that Edmund would no longer be eligible to continue there because he is black.

Moreover, if Edmund’s family had stayed in the two-bedroom apartment in their former neighborhood, where their cars had been broken into and gunshots rang out in the night, Edmund could continue to attend Gateway next fall. Other families have both the choice of safe communities to live in and a broad choice of public schools to send their kids to. Because of his race, Edmund is being denied the same schooling opportunity other kids enjoy; that immoral policy traps other African-American families who might want to live in a St. Louis suburb. The ghetto boundaries in St. Louis for African Americans are not marked with barbed wire, but the exit fee is still too high.

The history that led to such a crazy government policy is, as you might imagine, convoluted — but ultimately no justification for racial discrimination against Edmund. A discrimination lawsuit against the St. Louis school system was filed 44 years ago and settled eleven years later. For about the next 16 years, that settlement imposed certain race-based school-transfer policies to help integrate the school system. Black kids living in the city were permitted to transfer to schools located in the suburbs, and white kids living in the outlying area were permitted to transfer to schools located in the city. The federal court monitoring the settlement ended its involvement and dissolved all court orders in the case 17 years ago. All that occurred long before Edmund was born or began his schooling.

Because of his race, Edmund is being denied the same schooling opportunity other kids enjoy.

Inexplicably, the relevant city- and county-controlled corporation kept extending school-transfer policies that were crafted during the decades-old litigation, first for ten years and then for two five-year periods. Government officials have told parents that old court orders require continuation of the policies, but the opposite is true. All race-based policies of this type are constitutionally suspect and subject to strict scrutiny under the law. The race-based policies were suspect to begin with if race-neutral alternatives were not exhausted, and there is absolutely no lawful ground to extend them indefinitely into the future.

#share#Analogous race-based school-assignment policies exist in many other jurisdictions as well, in part because 150 to 200 school districts are still under court desegregation orders that are 30 to 50 years old. These are “zombie” cases that aren’t really alive but have the potential to hurt kids today when activists revive them to stop education-reform efforts. What’s worse, however, are policies, such as the one in St. Louis, left over from litigation that ended decades ago. The education bureaucracy takes it from there. One thing bureaucrats do pretty effectively is enforce inflexible rules inflexibly, regardless of the perverse consequences, the Constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment, or common sense.

With the help of our foundation, Mrs. White recently filed a lawsuit of her own in federal district court to end such racial double standards and to secure justice for Edmund. And last week, she sought an injunction to stop the school system from denying Edmund his educational choice while the case is pending. It’s unfortunate that St. Louis wouldn’t do the right thing on its own, but the government can no longer hide behind the tired excuses it’s offered so far.

Good intentions don’t always lead to perdition, but they sometimes do, and good intentions can’t save unconstitutional policies. In the most recent Supreme Court case striking down discriminatory school-assignment policies, Seattle claimed that its race-based policy served a larger anti-discrimination goal. To that, Chief Justice John Roberts famously quipped, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Indeed!

We are confident that Edmund will prevail and that his case will eliminate race-based assignment policies for everyone in St. Louis. For Edmund personally, we are working to ensure that his attendance at Gateway is not interrupted. Until his case is resolved, we invite everyone to #StandWithEdmund.

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