CLEVELAND — A federal appeals court has asked a Mississippi judge to explain how a freedom of choice plan will desegregate the Cleveland school system.
The government had argued last month before a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans that U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson in Oxford erred in ordering the Cleveland public schools to adopt a “freedom-of-choice” desegregation plan as a remedy for failing to desegregate formerly predominantly black schools.
The government said the evidence shows the plan would not effectively desegregate the schools.
The desegregation case dates back to 1965, when plaintiffs sued the Bolivar County school system, including Cleveland, to end white-only and black-only schools. The school system has been under oversight of federal courts ever since.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit agreed yesterday with the government — to a point. The panel yesterday asked Davidson for a “more explicit explanation of the reasons for adopting the freedom of choice plan, and/or for consideration of the alternative desegregation plans proposed by the parties, as appropriate.”
Jamie Ferguson Jacks of Cleveland, the attorney for the Cleveland School Board, did not immediate response to a request for comment.
In 2011, the Cleveland school district petitioned the court to remove it from federal oversight.
In the 1960s, school districts across the South were sued for discrimination and given desegregation orders, which put them under the scrutiny of the Justice Department. A dozen or more school systems in Mississippi have petitioned federal courts to come out from under such orders.
In Cleveland, two middle schools and two high schools have co-existed for decades. One set is all black; the other, school officials say, is well-balanced for race.
In 2012, the school district filed a proposal to desegregate East Side High School and D.M. Smith Middle School. The school system wanted to introduce magnet programs at both schools to help attract white students from Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Jr. High School.
Magnet schools have a specific theme or mission that drives their curriculum, such as fine arts or science. Magnet schools still must be racially balanced.
Instead, Davidson ordered the Cleveland schools to open the two high schools and two middle schools to all students and drop attendance zones defined as one on each side of the railroad tracks that split the town.
“The high school and junior high school students should have a true freedom of choice to attend either high school and either junior high school,” Davidson wrote in his 2013 decision.
Davidson had earlier rejected a government’s proposal to consolidate the schools.
The 5th Circuit panel said the available statistics show not a single white student chose to enroll at D.M Smith or East Side High after the district court’s order, and that historically, over the course of multiple decades, no white student has ever chosen to enroll at D.M. Smith or East Side High. The panel said that raised questions about whether the district court’s freedom of choice plan was the most appropriate desegregation remedy.
“However, if the district court’s remedy is premised on a conclusion that, aside from the freedom of choice plan, there is nothing more that the District can or should do to desegregate D.M. Smith and East Side High, that conclusion should be justified.
“If the district court’s order is premised on avoiding ‘white flight’ that may occur as a result of other proposed remedies such as consolidation, it must grapple with the complexities of that issue,” the panel said.