- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 6, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A New Orleans charter school that’s open to all students yet has a 93 percent black enrollment is at the center of a legal case raising tough questions about how to balance court-mandated desegregation with new innovations in education.

Greater Grace Academy is an independently run public school, granted a charter to operate by Louisiana’s education board, but it operates within the boundaries of a local school district that, like many in the South, is under a decades-old federal court desegregation order.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in New Orleans heard arguments over how that desegregation order affects Greater Grace and, whether a federal judge was right when he issued an order allowing the school to open.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman ruled last August that Greater Grace could open. The school’s enrollment was 93 percent black. It opened in St. James Parish, where the district enrollment is 62 percent black, according to court records.

Opponents of Feldman’s stopped short Tuesday of saying Greater Grace should be prevented from re-opening in the next school year. But they said Feldman’s order should be reversed. And they say the federal court should set guidelines under which charter schools can operate in districts that are still under desegregation orders.

Greater Grace Charter Academy is one of a growing number of public schools operated by independent authorities with permission from state or local education authorities.

The St. James Parish School Board and plaintiffs in the case that resulted in a 1967 desegregation order say Feldman was wrong to allow what is essentially a one-race school to open - the fourth mostly one-race school in a district that’s still working to achieve full desegregation in the eyes of the courts.

The case is complicated by the fact that Greater Grace was chartered by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, not by the local board.

Michael Higgins, an attorney for Greater Grace, noted that Greater Grace draws some of its students from other districts. It’s open to everyone without regard to race or place of residence. Feldman had noted in last year’s order that it has open enrollment and a non-discriminatory policy and said failing to allow the school to open would punish students who chose to enroll there.

Nevertheless, argued Deuel Ross, an attorney for plaintiffs in the still-active desegregation case, Louisiana law says that even those charters approved by the state fall under federal desegregation orders in the districts where they are located.

“There is no question the school is subject to the desegregation order,” said Ross, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The three-judge 5th Circuit panel that heard the case gave no indication when it would rule.

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