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Judge dismisses suit against race-based restrictions of St. Louis' deseg program

Edmund Lee
provided by family

Updated July 19 with response to judge's ruling— A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against St. Louis’ voluntary desegregation program.

La’Shieka White sued the program because her son, who is black, is barred from attending a city charter school now that her family has moved to Maryland Heights. Her suit called the program’s race-based restrictions unconstitutional.

In his order dismissing the case Friday, Judge Ronnie White agreed with the Voluntary Inter-district Choice Corporation's argument that White lacked standing because the desegregation program processes applications for St. Louis Public Schools, not charter schools. He also noted that the VICC program is unique because it was created as a remedy for a violation of the equal protection clause — the same clause White sued VICC under.

"Barring any finding contrary (to voluntary transfers being constitutional as remedies to segregation) the Court holds that the remedial means are still necessary, unitary status has not been achieved, and Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed," White wrote in his order.

In response, the Pacific Legal Foundation, which brought the suit on behalf of White and her family, expressed disappointment and plans to appeal the ruling to a higher court.

"We believe the court is wrong on the law," attorney Joshua Thompson said on the foundation's blog, "and we know we are right on the underlying principle -- that the Constitution does not allow public schools to discriminate based on race.

"As Dr. King said, the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Sometimes the same is true of litigation -- it can take a long time and lots of perseverance to right an injustice. From the beginning we knew this case might need to be decided, ultimately, by the U.S. Supreme Court. We are prepared to go all the way to that level, if necessary, to stop St. Louis-area schools from turning away students based on their color."

Original story —The agency that runs the area’s school desegregation program says it has no control over admissions policies for charter schools, so it should not be the target of a suit filed by an African-American family whose son can’t continue at a charter school because of his race.

That suit was filed last month by the family of Edmund Lee, who wants to continue attending Gateway Science Academy in the city even though his family has moved to Maryland Heights.

Under the rules of the desegregation program administered by the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp.(VICC), African-American students in the city may transfer to schools in St. Louis County, and students who are not African-American may transfer from the county to schools in the city. But African-American students who live in the county may not transfer to schools in the city.

After Edmund’s situation became public, support for his ability to stay at Gateway was backed by opinion pieces and an online petition that now has more than 135,000 signatures. The Pacific Legal Foundation, based in Sacramento, Calif., took up his cause and filed suit in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, claiming that the refusal to allow Edmund to stay at Gateway solely because of his race is “flat-out unconstitutional.”

The suit targeted VICC because it administers the voluntary transfer program that grew out of a case first brought by Minnie Liddell in 1972. The response filed on behalf of VICC on Thursday argued that far from being a violation of the constitution, the transfer program exists because of the constitution.

“The Liddell County-to-City magnet school transfer program administered by VICC does not and cannot violate the Equal Protection Clause,” one of the motions said. “The program is a product of the Equal Protection Clause.”

Further, the papers argued, even if Edmund’s family wanted to argue that excluding him from Gateway is unconstitutional, seeking a remedy by suing VICC is the wrong way to go about it.

The response said that the agency does not enforce any rules “with respect to Gateway or any other charter school, or with respect to plaintiff’s son or any other students attending or seeking to attend charter schools. VICC does not make admission decisions for charter schools. Nor is there anything VICC could or would do to ‘enforce’ any requirements on Gateway.”

The response added:

“VICC plays no role in charter schools and does not tell them who they can and cannot admit. The decision-maker regarding enrollment of plaintiff’s son was not VICC, but Gateway; there is therefore no present case or controversy between plaintiff and VICC, nor is plaintiff’s injury caused by or ‘traceable to’ VICC.”

Charter schools were established by state law, not federal law, the response said, so a federal lawsuit against VICC is not the proper place for questions about it to be addressed. Gateway has said that since it is a public school, where no tuition is charged, Edmund cannot attend under current rules, and it does not consider allowing him to attend tuition-free even though he lives in the county to be an option.

Further, the legal response said that the lawsuit filed on behalf of Edmund was not the proper way to ask the court to take another look at the 1999 court settlement of the long-running desegregation case.

“It is absolutely inappropriate to revisit highly charged constitutional issues — issues that have been litigated to conclusion by dozens of parties over many years — while basic threshold legal and factual issues about plaintiff’s statutory rights to enroll (or seek enrollment) at Gateway remain unresolved,” the filing said.

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 last month.

“Indeed, the not-so-subtle implication of plaintiff’s arguments is that the voluntary interdistrict transfer program administered by VICC, one of the most successful of its kind in the nation, should abruptly end, interrupting the educations of current students and causing disruptions to schools throughout the city and county. There is simply no sound reason to attempt to disrupt this successful program, now in the process of winding down, over an issue that can conceivably be resolved by Gateway.”

Besides, the response added, the number of students going from the county to public schools in the city is limited and is likely to shrink even more as the program winds down.

“Eventually,” it said, “county-to-city magnet transfers will completely cease, so no students will transfer. Neither the transferring of white county students to the city in order to provide an integrated learning environment for the benefit of city students nor the planned end of that program will harm plaintiff at all, much less irreparably, because her (Edmund's mother) educational options are not affected by either circumstance.”

The response asks that the court dismiss the suit against VICC, because it has no authority over Edmund’s attendance at Gateway. It also asks the court to deny the preliminary injunction sought by Edmund’s family, barring VICC from enforcing what the original lawsuit called “race-based restrictions in the transfer program.”

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.