Supreme Court Quashes School Desegregation

In Depth

How might the Supreme Court's ruling on the consideration of race in public schools affect K-12 programs such as magnet schools? Does it affect affirmative action in higher education? Read more about the decision's potential impact.

In a decision with profound implications for the nation's public schools, the United States Supreme Court invalidated voluntary school desegregation plans.

The decision Thursday stemmed from a case involving schools in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., because they used race when assigning some students to schools in an effort to end racial isolation and prevent re-segregation.

Conservatives had hoped the ruling would be a clear blow to the concept of racial diversity as a vital public policy while civil rights advocates worried that the ruling would obliterate the concept that race can be a factor in remedying societal discrimination.

In the end, the court divided with four votes on each side and Justice Anthony Kennedy splitting the difference – and leaving officials of the Seattle and Louisville school districts with some hope.

At issue were voluntary school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville.

Louisville, once segregated by law, only got out from under a court order to desegregate six years ago, and the school system voluntarily kept in place and modified some of the court ordered measures. The current system combines school choice, neighborhood school assignment, and assignment based on race in order to maintain schools that are between 15 percent and 50 percent minority.

Seattle has a system that allows all high school students to rank the school of their choice, and if a school is oversubscribed, race is one of the tiebreakers in order to keep the schools within range of reflecting the districts overall white-nonwhite makeup.

Chief Justice John Roberts, speaking for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said that any consideration of race is invalid in these circumstances because racial balancing has no stopping point. Racial balancing, he declared, cannot be transformed into a constitutional practice by labeling it diversity.

But Justice Kennedy, while agreeing that student assignments based on race are generally unacceptable, rejected Roberts' view that diversity is just another form of unconstitutional racial balancing. That would seem, he said, to ignore the problem of de facto segregation and instead mandate that state and local school authorities must accept the status quo of racially isolated and distinct schools.

I cannot accept that, said Kennedy, for I believe that view is profoundly mistaken.

His opinion s rules out the Seattle and Louisville plans as they stand now because they classify individual children by race. At the same time, however, he endorses other race-conscious strategies such as racial gerrymandering of school districts to provide greater racial mixing.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, has studied and promoted racial desegregation plans for decades.

"Justice Kennedy has left us in kind of a muddle but he has not slammed the door," said Orfield, also professor of education at the university's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, "just made it a lot more complicated."

Just as efforts to allow race as a consideration in school assignment failed, so too did the conservative drive to eliminate race as a factor at all in such decisions.

Ted Shaw, counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund: "There's an ideological war going on here with respect to not only the place of race in this country, but whether we should be able to do anything to address racial inequality on a voluntary basis."

But school officials in Seattle and Louisville were encouraged by Justice Kennedy's comments.

Gary Ikeda, legal advisor for the Seattle School District, 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.

"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," said Ikeda.

In Louisville, 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 Pat Todd, a school district official, said it won't happen in the upcoming school year.

"There will be no changes in student assignment and no changes in the way that school will be opened and operated for '07-08," she said.

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