Racial Isolation Court Case

One of the most compelling local cases dates back to 2009, when the Lower Merion Board of School Directors approved a redistricting plan that mandated that students living in certain areas where the students traditionally attended Lower Merion High School were now told they had to attend Harriton High School. The families of nine students living in an area of Ardmore filed a lawsuit in May of 2009 claiming the district illegally used race as a consideration in the redistricting process. The families are black and they argued that the district selected their neighborhood because it is a predominantly African-American community and the district was trying to equal the number of black students at the two high schools. The case was heard a year later and in June of 2010, Judge Michael Baylson agreed that the district used race as a factor, however, it did not violate the law when it did so.

This case alleged that redistricting plan violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no State shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." When school districts are faced with Equal Protection challenges, the first step of the court will be to determine the appropriate level of scrutiny. A racial classification occurs only when an action "distributes burdens or benefits on the basis of race." Racially discriminatory purpose means that the decision makers, in this case, the Lower Merion School Board, adopted the challenged action at least partially because the action would benefit or burden an identifiable group. However, The District's goals included that:

1. "The enrollment of the two high schools and two middle schools will be equalized;"

2. "Elementary students will be assigned so that the schools are at or under the school capacity;"

3. "The plan may not increase the number of buses required;"

4. "The class of 2010 will have the choice to either follow the redistricting plan or stay at the high school of their previous year;" (referred to as "grandfathering") and

5. "Redistricting decisions will be based upon current and expected future needs and not based on past practices."

The District Court concluded that Lower Merion’s redistricting plan employing these goals required strict scrutiny because race was a factor in the formation of the plan, but concluded that the plan is constitutional because it did not use race a sole decision to draw new school boundaries.

A lot can be learned from this local court case since redistricting is often an emotionally-charged topic. It can often lead to legal challenges if the district is not careful when they draw new lines to balance schools and pay close attention to any racial isolation that may occur as a result.

Reference: Not So Black and White: The Third Circuit Upholds Race-Conscious Redistricting in Doe ex rel. Doe v. Lower Merion School District, 58 Vill. L. Rev. 797 (2013). Westlaw.org