Columbus Board of Education v. Penick

During the 1970s, officials in several boards of education in Ohio responded to allegations that they consciously engaged in racial discrimination by creating and perpetuating dual school systems. The resulting litigation placed Ohio in the judicial forefront of Northern school desegregation cases, wherein school boards sought to limit the circumstances under which federal courts could mandate districtwide school desegregation remedies.

Columbus Board of Education v. Penick (1979) was one of those landmark cases that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As evidence of the ongoing desegregation litigation in Ohio, Columbus was handed down on the same day as Dayton Board of Education v. Brinkman II (1979), owing to the similarity of facts and legal questions that the two cases generated.

Facts of the Case

The dispute in Columbus arose when 14 minority students filed a class action suit against their school board alleging that its segregative policies and procedures had both the purpose and effect of creating and perpetuating racial segregation throughout the district. The students claimed that the actions of their local board, combined with those of a variety of state officials and agencies, violated their rights to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and pursuant to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown Board of Education v. Board of Education of Topeka I (1954), which struck down racial segregation in public schools.

After a federal trial court and the Sixth Circuit’s agreement that the defendants violated the students’ rights, the school board developed a school desegregation plan that it intended to implement during the 1978–1979 academic year. However, as school board officials prepared to implement the plan, they recognized the financial burdens that doing so would have imposed on the system; they sought and were granted a stay. In the meantime, the board also sought further review from the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear an appeal.

At issue at the Supreme Court was whether the school board’s actions in Columbus, in creating discriminatory attendance zones, discriminatory administrator and teacher assignment policies, and discriminatory policies as to school site selections constituted sufficient evidence of discriminatory purpose and impact to establish an equal protection violation and the need for imposing a districtwide remedial order.

The Court’s Ruling

Affirming in favor of the plaintiffs in a 7-to-2 judgment, Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court. In declaring that there was no reason to disturb the Sixth Circuit’s opinion, White referred to the findings and conclusions of the trial court. To this end, White acknowledged that the trial court had decided that the board’s conduct, before and at the time of the initial trial, was not only motivated by an unconstitutional and segregative intent but also had contemporary racial impact that was sufficiently wide to justify a remedial plan for the entire system.

Relying on a variety of the Supreme Court’s precedent- setting cases, most notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka II (1955), White pointed out that the board had a continuous constitutional obligation to dismantle all components of its dual school system but failed to meet the appropriate standard of duty. As such, the majority of the Court concluded that a districtwide remedy was warranted insofar as the board’s actions had the foreseeable and anticipated effect of preserving racial segregation in schools throughout the entire system.

Columbus makes an important contribution to case law on school desegregation to the extent that it informs policies and practices of both educational and legal professionals. Insofar as the Supreme Court found that the board in Columbus engaged in a variety of discriminatory practices, its analysis stands for the proposition that as long as there is sufficient prima facie evidence of purposeful discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, a trial court can call for districtwide corrective remedies to eliminate racial segregation in public schools.

John F. Heflin

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Dayton Board of Education v. Brinkman, I and II; Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment; Segregation, De Facto; Segregation, De Jure

Further Readings

  • Brown, K. (1992). Has the Supreme Court allowed the cure for de jure segregation to replicate the disease? Cornell Law Review, 78, 1–83. 
  • Jacobs, G. S. (1998). Getting around Brown: Desegregation, development, and the Columbus Public Schools. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. 

Legal Citations