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Student barred from St. Louis charter school presses bias lawsuit

La'Shieka White talks about the lawsuit involving her son, Edmund Lee. Attorney Joshua Thompson is at left.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
La'Shieka White talks about the lawsuit involving her son, Edmund Lee. Attorney Joshua Thompson is at left.

The African-American student who was barred from attending a St. Louis charter school after his family moved to St. Louis County is pressing his case in federal appeals court, arguing that the agency that administers the city-county transfer plan is violating his constitutional rights.

The family of Edmund Lee filed suit this year, claiming racial discrimination. He had attended Gateway Science Academy while his family lived in St. Louis, but when they moved to Maryland Heights, the school said he could no longer attend.

Under the city-county transfer program, administered by the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. (VICC), black students living in St. Louis can transfer to schools in St. Louis County, and students who are not African-American and live in the county can transfer to city schools, including charters. But black students who in the county cannot transfer to schools in the city.

The suit filed by Lee’s family was dismissed in July by U.S. District Judge Ronnie White, who agreed with VICC that Lee’s family lacked standing in the case. VICC also argued that because it processes applications for city magnet schools, not charter schools, it should not be the target of the suit.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which brought the suit on behalf of the family, filed an appeal with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal emphasizes the family’s claim that Edmund was being denied the right to attend Gateway Science Academy solely because of his race.

La'Shieka White talks about the lawsuit involving her son, Edmund Lee. Attorney Joshua Thompson is at left.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
La'Shieka White talks about the lawsuit involving her son, Edmund Lee. Attorney Joshua Thompson is at left.

Referring to him by his initials, the appellate brief said:

“E.L. has suffered one of the most tangible, concrete, and serious injuries possible — the “denial of equal treatment” on the basis of race ... .

“That injury manifests itself in at least two additional ways: by making it more difficult for E.L. to attend charter schools — including Gateway — because he is African-American, and by making E.L. ineligible to transfer to magnet schools because of his race.”

In its response, VICC said it has no role in the admissions policies of Gateway or any other charter school, and to allow African-American students to transfer from the county into the city would run counter to the goal of the program, which is to desegregate schools in the city of St. Louis.

“Indeed,” its brief said, “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 risk disruption of this successful program, now in the process of winding down, over an issue that can conceivably be resolved by Gateway.”

Responding to the VICC brief, Edmund’s family noted that students of any other race who live in St. Louis County would be allowed to attend a city school under the transfer program.

“VICC refuses to treat E.L., and other similarly situated African-American children, equally with respect to race. It insists it must continue to treat African-American children like E.L. differently from his white, Hispanic and Asian neighbors. This is the constitutional injury E.L. asks this court to redress.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, VICC has maintained that it has no power to alter the terms that govern student transfers.

“Although VICC does play a role in the administration of county-to-city magnet transfers,” it said in its most recent filing, “it plays no role with respect to charter schools … .

“VICC is not involved in sponsoring or establishing any charter schools and plays no role with respect to the administration of, transportation to or funding of such schools. Nor does it tell charter schools who they can and cannot admit, which is governed by state statutes.”

Terms of the transfer program

Edmund’s family has argued that because VICC has extended the life of the transfer program, it can make other changes as well that would allow Edmund to attend a city charter school even though he lives in the county.

“VICC has already taken the relevant coercive action,” its brief said. “It adopted the discriminatory program, then extended it, then extended it again, all the while administering and enforcing its discriminatory provisions.” 

But VICC countered:

“If VICC had never extended the transfer program,” its appellate response said, “plaintiff’s position would be exactly the same as it is now because no students, including plaintiff’s son, would be eligible for transfer under the ‘urban voluntary transfer program’ administered by VICC.”

To suggestions that Edmund might be able to obtain special permission to attend Gateway, his family’s brief responded:

“E.L.’s white neighbors can attend Gateway through a straightforward application of Missouri law — without requesting a waiver or suing in state court. VICC’s suggestion that E.L. go, hat in hand, begging for a waiver and suing in state court, while his white neighbors enroll as a matter of right, is offensive.”

The brief said Edmund’s family no longer wants an injunction allowing him to attend Gateway, because “E.L.’s mother believes it would cause him undue stress to only temporarily be permitted to switch schools and to do so mid-school year. E.L. presses this appeal to ensure he has the same opportunities as his white neighbors now and in the future.”

And his lawyers said that Edmund’s case addresses broader questions than just his specific situation. It recalled landmark racial discrimination decisions such Plessy vs. Ferguson, which dealt with railroad accommodations, and Brown vs. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools.

“Just as Plessy was not solely about railcars, and Brown was not solely about attending certain Topeka schools, E.L.’s lawsuit is not solely about Gateway or city magnet schools,” the appellate brief said.

It concluded:

“E.L. is entitled to his day in court to prove that VICC’s overt discrimination against African-American children is not necessary to remedy past discrimination against African-American children.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Copyright 2016 St. Louis Public Radio

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.