Federal Judge Price Marshall, in a 30-page order today, dismissed a sweeping racial discrimination lawsuit against the state of Arkansas in the takeover of the Little Rock School District.
The plaintiffs, led by civil rights lawyer John Walker, had sought to reverse both the takeover of the LRSD and the granting of permission to Little Rock charter schools to expand their student populations. The suit named as defendants the state Board of Education (which gave final authorization to the takeover and the charter expansions), Education Commissioner Johnny Key and the Arkansas Department of Education. Marshall said the plaintiffs had failed to make a case against the state, though the school district itself must still face a trial on the merits of a complaint about unfairness in facilities.
From the decision:
The governing legal standard is plausibility: the plaintiffs must allege enough facts against the state defendants to show that racial motivation is not merely possible, but plausible. The court must look past legal conclusions. And while eloquent arguments passionately made, such as plaintiffs’ responding brief, have their rightful place, the law here focuses on what John Adams famously called the stubborn things — the facts.
Of course it’s possible. It’s conceivable that, somewhere in all this, some had a foul intention — the district should be taken over or Ms. [Joy] Springer or Dr. [James] Ross shoved out of office with the rest of the district board or charter schools expanded or federal money mismanaged — to benefit white students and to harm black students, their parents and citizen servants such as Springer and Ross.
And there’s no real question about disproportionate effect: more than 65 percent of LRSD students are black; a majority of the dissolved Board was black; and the students at the growing charter schools in Little Rock are (to generalize) whiter and wealthier than LRSD’s students. But the settled precedent is clear; discriminatory effects alone are insufficient to show discriminatory intentions.
What’s missing are pleaded facts that show the intention to discriminate based on race, that show foul thoughts becoming harmful actions.
The ruling has some interesting commentary, including the judge’s taking notice of the outcry of the removal of superintendent Baker Kurrus for opposition to further charter school expansion. He noted that the lawsuit had depicted Kurrus as catering to wealthy white interests, but there’d been diverse outcry against his ouster.
The judge dismissed quickly a variety of constitutional challenges. He also offered an explanation for the takeover other than the racial motivation alleged by the plaintiffs — a political one. “Ideas and elections have consequences for public policy,” he wrote. Marshall said the facts showed the state board pursuing “divisive, but not unconstitutional” policies. He noted the charter school advocacy of board member Vickie Saviers and Diane Zook, as well as that of Zook’s nephew, Gary Newton, paid by the Walton Family Foundation to advocate charter expansion. He noted, too, Education Commissioner Johnny Key’s lack of qualifications for the job. Time will tell if that was a good choice, he said. But he said board actions weren’t “so far outside the ordinary course” to suggest an unconstitutional motive.
While expanding charters at the behest of advocates indisputably depleted white students in LRSD, Marshall still said the facts suggested only “possible” not “plausible” discrimination. Events could just be explained by policy differences, he said.
The state takeover and charter expansion are facts “heavy with possibilities both good and bad,” Marshall wrote:
There are wishes, inclinations and passions all around. Plaintiffs’ careful amended complaint ably presents the full weight of all the facts. It does not, however, plausibly show that the state Board’s extraordinary steps were partly motivated by racial animus or were otherwise constitutionally impermissible. The motion to dismiss is therefore granted
The plaintiffs can appeal the ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative in the country these days. And Marshall is of course in solid ground on the newer standards for courts to take up claims about racial factors in education.
I’m trying to run down some reaction. For now, status quo.