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Suit calls race-based restrictions on school transfers 'flat-out unconstitutional'

La'Shieka White talks about the lawsuit involving her son, Edmund Lee, on May 4, 2016. Attorney Joshua Thompson is at left.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

A black third-grader's effort to continue at his St. Louis charter school even though his family has moved to St. Louis County has gone to federal court.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, based in California, announced Wednesday that it had filed the lawsuit seeking to reverse long-standing provisions of the area-wide school desegregation settlement that bars African-American students living in the county from transferring to city public schools, including charters.

In a news conference outside the federal courthouse downtown, foundation attorney Joshua Thompson said the restriction is “not just unacceptable. It is flat-out unconstitutional.

“No matter how benign the goals of this program may have seemed some decades ago, race can no longer be the driving force in determining where St. Louis kids go to school.”

The suit was filed on behalf of La’Shieka White and her 9-year-old son, Edmund Lee, who began at the Gateway Science Academy when he was in kindergarten. The family moved this year from a city apartment to a home in Maryland Heights, which made him ineligible to continue at the school under rules of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp.(VICC), which administers the transfer program. It is run by superintendents of school districts taking part in the transfer program.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, VICC said it could not comment specifically on the lawsuit because it has not had time to study it. It added:

“In general students must attend school in the district in which they reside. In VICC’s case, we are governed by the federal court decision and the related settlement agreement which was established to address long standing school segregation issues.

“As such, the agreement (which was signed by many parties including the State of MO) allows for African American students residing in the City of St. Louis to attend certain participating districts in the county and conversely to allow non-African American students in participating districts in the County to attend magnet (and Charter) schools in the City with one of the primary goals being to increase the integration of the schools.

“This particular student’s ineligibility is a straightforward application of how the program works and the rules that we must abide by.”

Long case history

But it is those rules that Thompson said need to be changed because they violate the equal protection guarantees of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Edmund’s situation is particularly egregious, Thompson said in an interview.

“If you're talking about integrating the schools,” he said, “Edmund's going to a school that is over 80 percent white right now. You have a policy that prohibits him from transferring into that school simply because he's black. It's not increasing diversity. It's not increasing integration. It's strictly a race-based restriction that violates the constitution.”

The lawsuit traces the long history of the St. Louis desegregation case, back to the action brought in 1972 by Minnie Liddell on behalf of her son Craton, who was being transferred from one school to another by the city. The suit led first to intradistrict busing in the city, then to the voluntary interdistrict system that continues today.

Thompson said the lawsuit on behalf of White does not seek to undo all of that program, just the restriction that prevents black students in St. Louis County from transferring into public schools in the city. The suit seeks an injunction barring VICC from enforcing race-based restrictions in the transfer program and asks that the case be heard by a jury.

The voluntary desegregation plan was designed to boost integration by letting black students in the city transfer to predominantly white districts in St. Louis County. It also created magnet schools in the city designed to attract white students from the county, integrating city schools. Charter schools, which are public schools funded with tax money but not part of the city school system, did not exist when the plan began.

In many ways, Thompson added, the suit continues such actions that go back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in 1954.

Edmund Lee Sr. holds a poster picturing his son outside the federal courthouse downtown on May 4, 2016.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Edmund Lee Sr. holds a poster picturing his son outside the federal courthouse downtown.

“We're arguing that the state cannot prohibit kids from attending schools simply because of the color of their skin,” Thompson said.

“We are seeking to strike down a policy that is preventing thousands of kids from transferring into schools, and by succeeding in this lawsuit, we hope to achieve the equal protection rights of all those children. So we seek a lot with our lawsuit, but in a lot of respects, it hearkens back to lawsuits from 60 years ago.”

Thompson emphasized that the suit is not against Gateway Science Academy, which must operate under the rules as they are. He said VICC is the defendant because it has reauthorized the program twice and it is responsible for enforcing the restrictions that the lawsuit seeks to overturn.

Nationwide attention

The Pacific Legal Foundation is based in Sacramento, Calif., and describes its mission as limiting government power and restoring constitutional limits at the local, state and federal levels. Thompson said he read a news story about Edmund’s situation, contacted White and decided to take on the costs of the lawsuit, which he said could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

White said her family moved from a small apartment to a home in Maryland Heights to gain more space plus get away from crime. She did not initially realize the impact it would have on Edmund’s education.

“We are long past the day where students can be turned away from schools because of their race – well, that’s what I thought, at least,” she said at the news conference, adding that she felt her family had been caught in a time warp, going back to the days when school segregation was still legal.

Of the rules being administered by VICC, White said:

“It’s not fair, it’s not moral, and it’s not what America is about.”

In an interview, White noted that an online petition in support of Edmund has gained more than 134,000 signatures, and she expects that total to jump when news of the lawsuit spreads. She said Edmund has some sense of his place in a continuing legal drama.

“He's still just a kid,” she said. “He thinks it's pretty cool that we're trying to fight for his rights. He's just humble. He understands that he's playing a big role essentially for kids 20, 30 years from now.”

Read more about the deseg program from We Live Here.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.