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Schools Worry About Fate of Desegregation Efforts

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Schools Worry About Fate of Desegregation Efforts

Education

Schools Worry About Fate of Desegregation Efforts

Schools Worry About Fate of Desegregation Efforts

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12782051/12782777" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Students sit in science class at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Lynn, Mass., in June 2006. In 2005, attorney Chester Darling, representing parents in the district, lost a case against Lynn's school desegregation program. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Now, Darling is trying to reopen it. Ashley Twiggs/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images hide caption

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Ashley Twiggs/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

In Depth: Parsing the High Court's Ruling

In late June, the Supreme Court struck down two public school plans that used race as a factor in deciding where students attend classes. The 5-4 ruling on plans from two major public school districts — in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. — was expected to prompt revisions of similar plans in schools across the country. Read more about the ruling and its impact.

Schools are reopening this year under a new legal cloud: Districts around the country must decide whether they can continue using race to assign students to schools.

In June, the Supreme Court struck down the use of race in school assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. Those districts are already revising their assignment plans. But many other school systems are hoping that local support will help them avoid court challenges to their desegregation efforts.

Chester Darling has been fighting desegregation plans for decades. The Massachusetts attorney hailed this year's Supreme Court ruling and says he knows what he would like to do about school systems that still use race to decide who attends a particular school.

"I would go after every single one of them," Darling announces. "It's wrong. You just don't sort kids by color and deny benefits to them because of the color of their skin."

Desegregation is still a touchy issue around Boston, the scene of violent protests over school busing in the 1970s. Supporters of desegregation plans now worry the pendulum has swung back to those bad old days.

"We're taking a step back toward resegregation," says Jeff Young, superintendent of schools in Newton, Mass. "I don't know how you can think much besides that."

Newton participates in Metco, a 40-year-old program that sends about 3,300 minority children to predominately white school systems. Young says that if the Metco system were to be challenged, he believes it could withstand court scrutiny because of the benefits. He says it greatly increases the chance that a student in his school system will share a science lab with a child of color or act in a play with a minority student.

There are at least 20 school systems in Massachusetts that use race to assign students within their districts. Metco, an interdistrict program that serves 38 districts around Boston and Springfield, is viewed by many as the most vulnerable program. But anyone who wants to challenge the legality of Metco will have to tangle with Executive Director Jean McGuire.

"You don't get rid of racism unless you deal with the issues of racial segregation and separation," McGuire says without a shred of doubt in her voice. "There's no other way to do it."

McGuire is pretty hot under the collar about the Supreme Court decision. She rejects the idea put forward by some: that Metco could be saved if it were changed to focus on income, not race.

But until some parent challenges Metco, the system appears safe. That's not the case in nearby Lynn, Mass., where Darling is trying to reopen a case he lost in 2005. The Supreme Court refused to hear that case. Now, Darling feels the recent ruling against Seattle and Louisville will strengthen his hand. The Lynn desegregation plan, he says, must fall.

But the attorney general of Massachusetts, Martha Coakley, says not so fast. In court filings, Coakley urges a federal court to leave the Lynn system alone. She points to the crucial fifth vote in the Supreme Court ruling — Justice Anthony Kennedy, who ruled against the Seattle and Louisville systems, but nevertheless wrote that "a compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation, an interest that a school district may choose to pursue."

In California, desegregation plans are already under legal attack. But there, conservative legal groups can rely on Proposition 209, which barred the use of affirmative-action programs in 1997. In other states, desegregation foes must mount costly legal challenges and find plaintiffs willing to go to court. In many school districts, these programs have local support, so finding a plaintiff is not always easy.

But conservative groups say local support should not outweigh the Supreme Court ruling. They say legal segregation plans once had local support before the Supreme Court ruled against them in Brown v. Board of Education. Despite the support, those plans were unconstitutional, they point out, and had to be thrown out.