WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that said Montgomery County schools cannot use race as a factor in student transfer decisions.
The case involved the appeal of a white elementary school student who was denied a transfer to a magnet school program because too many white students had already left his old school.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in October that such “racial balancing” is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court declined, without comment Monday, to consider an appeal of that ruling.
Montgomery County school officials said they were “distraught” by the court’s refusal to hear their appeal, which they said “essentially ties our hands” in the fight to avoid racially isolated schools.
An official from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education said last week that, if left to stand, the lower court’s decision could have implications for school systems across the country on all kinds of decisions, such as drawing boundaries and granting assignments.
The association, its national parent and 15 other organizations had urged the court last month to hear Montgomery County’s appeal, saying the 4th Circuit’s decision undermines “the idea of providing a diverse learning environment.”
“I think the major issue we would like the Supreme Court to resolve is how school systems can use race as a factor in any kind of policy decision they make,” said Eric Schwartz, the association’s deputy executive director.
The case began in 1998 when Jeffrey Eisenberg asked that his son Jacob, then 6, be transferred from Glen Haven Elementary School in Silver Spring to Rosemary Hills, a nearby science and math magnet school.
The Montgomery County Board of Education turned down the request because the number of white students at Glen Haven was declining and transferring Jacob, who is white, would have further upset the school’s racial balance.
The Eisenbergs challenged the decision and the case eventually landed in court. In October, the 4th Circuit agreed with the family that the racial factor in the school district’s student-transfer policy was illegal.
“As we have pointed out, such race-based governmental actions are presumed to be invalid,” the appeals judges wrote. The school system “may not consider the race of the applicant in granting or denying the transfer.
“If racial imbalance occurs in some of the Montgomery County schools because students like Jacob … are permitted to transfer to magnet schools to get a better education, any racial or ethnic imbalance is a product of ‘private choices [and] it does not have constitutional implications,'” the court said, citing other rulings on the issue.
Montgomery County school officials suspended their student-transfer policy while they appealed the circuit court’s decision. Currently, student transfers are permitted only because of a documented hardship, the presence of an older sibling at a school or a transfer to the next-highest school level, such as moving from grade school to middle school.
An official with the National School Board Association said last week that school systems must be able to decide where to place students if they are to maintain any sort of diversity and equality in the classroom.
Edwin Darden, senior staff attorney for the National School Board Association, said it had hoped the high court would make school boards “the final arbitrator in these (race) cases.”
The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will consider a related case, also from the 4th Circuit, which struck down the system used by Arlington County, Va., to achieve racial diversity at an alternative school.
The Arlington School Board created a weighted entrance lottery for the alternative school that favored low-income and minority students, if those populations were low in the school. Two students who were not admitted to the school sued, and the circuit court agreed that the school system’s lottery was unconstitutional.
Arlington County schools have appealed that decision, and the Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of this month if it will hear the case.