Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

Following is the case brief for Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971)

Case Summary of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education:

  • Having implemented a desegregation plan, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system still had de facto segregation, with many African-American students still attending many schools that were at least 99% African-American.
  • Petitioner Swann sued, and the District Court ordered that the school board provide a desegregation plan, which it did.
  • The board’s plan was not satisfactory to the District Court.  So, the District Court appointed an expert to create a plan.
  • The District Court ultimately ordered implementation of the expert’s desegregation plan.
  • The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals partially disagreed with the District Court regarding use of the expert’s plan for elementary schools.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, affirmed all of the District Court’s decision, finding that federal courts have the equitable authority to implement reasonable policies to achieve desegregation in public schools, including busing of children to different schools.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The school system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg implemented a desegregation plan in response to Brown v. Board of EducationThe desegregation plan had, however, limited results.  Of the 84,000 students in the system during the 1968-69 school year, 14,000 African-American students attended 21 schools that were at least 99% African-American.

Petitioner Swann sought further relief based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, which required school boards to create a plan that would remove state-imposed segregation.

The District Court found the school board’s first plan unsatisfactory, and thus appointed an expert to provide a plan.  The board then presented another plan along with the expert’s plan.  The board’s plan and the expert’s plan were similar with regard to junior and senior high schools, but different with regard to elementary schools.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court approved the expert’s plan.
  • The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s chosen plan regarding the junior and senior high schools, but vacated as to the elementary schools.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reinstated the District Court’s approval of the expert’s plan, pending further proceedings.
  • On remand, the District Court received additional plans, and gave the board three plans from which to choose, all of which the District Court deemed were reasonable.
  • The school board said it would “acquiesce” to the expert’s plan.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case and a number of others to review the power of federal courts to desegregate schools.

Issue and Holding:

Can federal courts use their equitable powers to find reasonable solutions to achieve racial desegregation in schools?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed insofar as it affirms the District Court’s judgment of the appropriate desegregation plan, and the District Court’s approval of the expert’s plan is otherwise affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The federal courts have equitable powers that are flexible enough to find reasonable solutions to ending state-imposed segregation in school systems.

Reasoning:

The Court’s objective in all of the school desegregation cases since Brown v. Board of Education, is to eliminate all vestiges of state-imposed segregation in public schools.  In that vein, federal district courts have broad equitable powers to achieve that goal.

Federal district courts should be flexible in their approach to desegregation and should work with local officials to make sure that dual school systems are not perpetuated.  With regard to student assignments, there are four problem areas with which guidance is necessary.

  1. Racial quotas. In this case, the District Court’s use of racial quotas in a flexible, reasonable manner can be a good starting point in shaping a remedy and, therefore, is within its equitable powers.
  2. One-race schools. The existence of a few one-race schools does not, in and of itself, mean that a desegregation plan has failed.  Yet, their existence should be closely scrutinized to ensure that they are not the result of state-imposed segregation.
  3. Attendance zones. There are no rigid rules in this area, and the District Court has the power to pair or group non-contiguous zones to eliminate past segregation.
  4. Transportation of students. The record in this case supports the District Court’s conclusion that merely assigning children to the school closest to them will perpetuate the dual school system that Brown v. Board of Education sought to eliminate.  Therefore, requiring bus transportation can be a tool for desegregation provided that the distance a child has to travel is not so far as to impact his or her health or education.

In this sensitive area of desegregation, the federal district court’s equitable power must be grounded in a sense of basic fairness.  Further, a year-by-year adjustment of racial composition need not be made as long as the affirmative duty to desegregate has been achieved.

Significance:

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and cases like it, have a complicated legacy.  On the one hand, the cases stand for the principle that federal courts can take common-sense, reasonable approaches to enforcing the Court’s landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, in order to eradicate the evil of segregation in public schools.  However, many people view these cases as “forced busing” cases in which the Court tried to micro-manage local school districts.  Unfortunately, the vision of desegregated schools has not quite come to fruition in this country, even to this day.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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