Justices uphold race as factor in teacher shifts Prince George's policy endures

January 12, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A policy used in Prince George's County for more than two decades making race a key factor in transferring teachers among public schools withstood a constitutional challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

The justices refused to disturb a federal appeals court ruling allowing the county to continue, as it has since 1971, to use involuntary transfers of teachers based on their race to maintain racial ratios on the faculty of individual schools.

Although the county no longer has any need to remedy race bias in initial assignments of teachers to schools, since that kind of discrimination ended nearly a decade ago, school officials contend that they must go on using race as a factor in transfers tTC to support the overall goal of desegregating its schools.

They argue that if any school's faculty should tip too much toward white or black teachers that school would become "racially identifiable" and students from the other race would be discouraged from going there, resulting in new student segregation.

Under the transfer policy, if a school loses enrollment because of declining numbers of students or changes in its program, transfers of teachers may be used to avoid racial tipping of the faculty. In that situation, the seniority of teachers is bypassed, and transfers are based on race.

A federal judge in Baltimore accepted the county's argument, allowing Prince George's to continue the policy of maintaining a faculty at each school as close as possible to the racial ratio of all teachers in the county.

Black teachers now make up about one-fourth of the county's 6,000 teachers.

The judge, Frank Kaufman, said the county's student desegregation plans depend heavily upon maintaining "magnet schools" to attract students of all races, and the success of those schools depends upon parents' view of faculty characteristics, including the racial makeup.

His ruling was upheld in September by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which said that Judge Kaufman had correctly based his ruling on his view of what was needed to assure success of student desegregation efforts.

The constitutional challenge to the teacher-transfer program was pursued by 12 county teachers, who were among the 35 teachers who have been involuntarily transferred under the county system.

Of those 35 teachers moved to other schools in recent years, 32 were white and three were black.

Taking their case on to the Supreme Court, transferred teachers argued that, once faculty segregation ended in Prince George's schools, the county had no valid reason to continue transferring teachers because of the racial composition of any faculty.

Prince George's County schools have been involved in court challenges over past segregation since 1972.

When Judge Kaufman in that year first imposed a school desegregation plan, he left undisturbed the county's then-new policy of basing teacher transfers on race.

The county has 170 schools attended by more than 100,000 students.

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