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Norwood v. Harrison

    Brief Fact Summary. The Appellants, Delores Norwood and others (Appellants), are the parents of four schoolchildren who are challenging the state of Mississippi’s textbook lending program. They claim that the program encourages discrimination by providing textbooks to the children who attend private, segregated schools.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution) is violated when a state provides aide to students of private, segregated schools because it encourages continued racial discrimination.

    Facts. The number of private schools in Mississippi has increased over the years since mandatory desegregation.
    The state of Mississippi has a 33 year-old program that provides free textbooks to all students in both public and private schools. Since the program began, the number of all white private schools greatly increased.  The Appellees, Harrison and other (Appellees), claim that the state must provide assistance to private schools that is equivalent to assistance provided to public schools.

    The Appellants filed a class action on behalf of all the students in Mississippi to enjoin the textbook lending program. The Appellants argued that by supplying the textbooks to the segregated private schools, the state was directly supporting segregated education, in violation of the student’s constitutional rights to fully desegregated schools.

    Issue. Does a state funded program that benefits both public and private school students equally, violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution simply because some of the private schools have racially discriminatory admissions practices?

    Held. Yes. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) first observed that in the past, the Supreme Court had enjoined state tuition grants to students attending racially discriminatory private schools. The Supreme Court found that the textbook lending program was analogous to those tuition grants. A textbook lending program is a form of tangible, financial assistance, which benefits the private schools and supports the discrimination exercised by those schools. Even though the intent of the program was not to discriminate, but to help children in the state, the effect of the assistance results in discrimination and is, therefore, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court stated “A State’s constitutional obligation requires it to steer clear, not only of operating the dual system of racially segregated schools, but also of giving significant aid to institutions that practice racial or other invidious discrimination.”

    Discussion. The aide provided by the state is a vital component of education and necessary for the private schools to carry out their goals. By supplying these basic instruments, the government is endorsing the practice of segregation. Equal Protection violations will result when either the effect or the intention of the state action is discrimination.


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