Lawsuit Over Race Discrimination in State Scholarship Awards Gains Ground
DETROIT — In a move forward for a civil rights lawsuit challenging Michigan's use of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) High School Test to award college scholarships, a federal judge today rejected the state's attempt to dismiss the case, which was brought by a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
"We believe that the judge made the correct decision in allowing this case to go forward," said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. "It is time that Michigan's scholarship program was redesigned to ensure that it truly rewards merit."
The lawsuit, White v. Engler, was originally filed in June 2000 by the ACLU, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund on behalf of five graduating seniors and the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP.
The groups initially sought an injunction requiring the state to immediately discontinue use of the MEAP as the sole criterion for awarding Michigan Merit Award Scholarships. They are calling for Michigan to revise its selection criteria, allowing for a fairer method that considers grade point average and other measures of achievement. According to the lawsuit, the use of MEAP test scores discriminates against high school students on the basis of race, ethnicity, and educational disadvantage. The MEAP test has never been validated as a means of assessing individual student achievement but rather was designed to measure school performance.
The government argued that the defendants -- who include Governor John Engler and members of the Michigan Merit Award Board -- were immune from prosecution and that the coalition could not sue the state because the students did not take advantage of retest opportunities made available to them. The state also maintained that not getting into a first-choice college does not amount to real injury.
The court today rejected the State's immunity claim and ruled that the loss of opportunity was sufficient reason to allow plaintiffs to pursue the case.
In an important legal ruling, the court also decided that the coalition need only prove that the scholarship has a "discriminatory effect" on minority and educationally disadvantaged students --a less difficult burden than proving intentional discrimination. Such a ruling keeps open an important path for discrimination lawsuits to be brought in the future, according to cooperating counsel Peggy Pitt.
"The court's decision to allow the plaintiffs to meet this easier legal burden will help people around the country who believe that they have been victims of discrimination," Pitt said.
The students in the case are represented by Moss and Michael Steinberg, Legal Director, of the ACLU of Michigan; Leonard Mungo of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP; Pat Mendoza and Marta Delgado of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund; Michael Pitt, Peggy Goldberg Pitt, and Judy Martin, as Cooperating Attorneys for the ACLU of Michigan, and Adele P. Kimmel of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, P.C.
Click Here for an analysis of the Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Program.
Click Here for a National ACLU update on this case.