Schools in Supreme Court Case Heartened
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Supporters of school diversity programs are trying to salvage what they can from a major defeat. The Supreme Court threw out desegregation programs in Seattle and Louisville. The court's conservative wing said those programs were unconstitutional because they sorted students by race. The court's more liberal wing supported the programs, and in the middle was Justice Anthony Kennedy.
He provided the fifth vote that overturned those two specific programs, but he also wrote an opinion suggesting there may be other ways to use race as an element in a school district's diversity plan. School officials in Seattle and Louisville seized on that opinion as a sign of hope.
NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports from Seattle.
WENDY KAUFMAN: The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who said that both districts unlawfully discriminated against students by making school assignments based on narrow racial classifications.
In Seattle, school officials had used race as one of the tiebreakers for deciding if a high school student could attend a particular school. Some parents sued, charging that their kids were denied entry into the school of their choice because of their race.
Harry Korrell, who represented those parents, was pleased by yesterday's ruling.
Mr. HARRY KORRELL (Attorney): The schools are looking at these kids not as kids, not as members of an educational community, but looking at them simply as members of a race. And the constitution prohibits that, and the court ruled that way, and that's pretty gratifying for us who've been fighting this battle for seven years.
KAUFMAN: But school officials in Seattle and in Louisville found a silver lining in Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurring opinion. Kennedy agreed that the two districts had gone too far. But, he said, it is permissible to consider the racial makeup of schools and to adopt general policies to encourage a diverse student body. Cheryl Chow, president of the Seattle School Board, said Kennedy's views made it clear that a majority of the high court believed that diversity mattered.
Ms. CHERYL CHOW (President, Seattle School Board): This decision clearly affirms that the door for racial diversity in public education remains open.
KAUFMAN: Yesterday's ruling will have no immediate impact on student assignment here, because the plan has not been used for the past five years. School district General Counsel Gary Ikeda suggested that future enrollment guidelines would be based on a broader approach where race played less of a role. He said the high court offered as a model the admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School.
Mr. GARY IKEDA (General Counsel, Seattle School District): We're going to have to think about how, in a K-12 context, that a more multi-factored process could be used, should be used and would be allowed by the court.
KAUFMAN: In Louisville, Kentucky, Jefferson County school officials seemed relieved that the Supreme Court did not rule that there was no compelling state interest in achieving diversity. Still, the district will have to change its approach. But school district official Pat Todd said it won't happen this year.
Ms. PAT TODD (Director of Student Assignment, Jefferson County Public Schools): There will be no changes in student assignment and no changes in the way that school will be opened and operated for 07, 08.
KAUFMAN: Plaintiffs strongly disagree, and they intend to fight. Attorney Ted Gordon said the district must move ahead with all deliberate speed to change the rules for the upcoming term.
Mr. TED GORDON (Attorney): They were the ones that took an intractable position through the last eight years that said we're not going to do anything until the court orders them. Now, the court has ordered them.
KAUFMAN: The high court's decision could affect school diversity plans across the country. The National School Boards Association expressed disappointment with the majority decision, adding that it hoped racial diversity in public schools would remain a legitimate educational goal.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
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