Supreme Court Cases Weigh School Integration

Two Supreme Court cases examine whether racial integration programs in public schools are constitutional. Farai Chideya talks about the cases with Anurima Bhargava, assistant council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, and Sharon Browne, principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

We just heard Beverly Daniel Tatum mention two Supreme Court cases on school integration. One is in Seattle, the other is in Louisville, Kentucky. White parents sued their children's school districts. They said their kids were blocked from certain schools because of programs favoring students of color.

I spoke about the cases with Anurima Bhargava, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, and Sharon Brown, principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California. Both groups filed briefs in the integration cases. Brown says she expects a ruling soon.

Ms. SHARON BROWN (Pacific Legal Foundation): We should be receiving decisions from the United States Supreme Court on both the Seattle School District case and the Louisville, Kentucky cases on the question of whether school districts can use race in assigning students to public schools. We thought that this type of action had been found unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, but the school districts still seem to want to use race in an attempt to racially balance their public schools. And we find - and it's our firm belief that the court will find these types of programs unconstitutional under the equal protection clause.

CHIDEYA: Anurima, do you have a differing opinion?

Ms. ANURIMA BHARGAVA (NAACP Legal Defense Fund): We think of these cases as being in the line of Brown and really being about the ability of local school communities all around this country to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, a case that the Legal Defense Fund litigated, and that promise is the ability of communities to really bring their children together and to teach our children how to live and work and play together in school.

CHIDEYA: Well, Anurima, I'm going to be tough on you - I mean I think in part because our audience really cares about this topic - but one thing that we have seen with a lot of African-American parents in particular, for example, is that they say, well, I don't care if the school is public or private, I don't care if it's necessarily in the neighborhood or out of the neighborhood, according to a lot of polls; I just care whether or not my kids are learning. How does that relate to the work that you're doing?

Ms. BHARGAVA: Absolutely agree with that. This is about fostering high-quality, integrated education, and in many school districts around this country, in New York, where I - where the Legal Defense Fund's headquarters are, it will be difficult to do that just because of, you know, the fact that we have a school district that is 90 percent students of color. But what Brown is about and what these cases are about is the ability to voluntarily and consciously trying to do something about racial inequality in schools. And integration may not be the tool to do that, but it is a tool to do that.

We are facing a severe educational crisis, and it's not the time to be taking tools off the table. And these challenges are about trying to take tools off the table that school districts and communities have really valued in being able to bring their children together. And they have - they themselves have voluntarily agreed is a way in which they think that they provide a better for all of their students.

CHIDEYA: Sharon, I'm going to be just as tough on you. If your goal is to help provide equality, why would you take a tool off the table that has been proven to work in some instances?

Ms. BROWN: Well, let me just make sure that everybody understands. This is not necessarily voluntary. What happens is that the parents are given a choice of schools that their children can attend, and then within that program the students are discriminated against based upon their race as to what school they can actually end up at. There are so many tools on the table for school districts to use to provide equal educational opportunities, and we really support equal educational opportunities for all our students. There happens to be school budgets that can be looked at. The faculties, the qualifications of their teachers, the curricula, are all mechanisms and tools that can used to improve the education opportunities for all our kids, not just a few select ones based upon their race but for all students.

CHIDEYA: I just want to give you a sense of how I grew up and how I was educated. I went to private pre-schools and then I went to a neighborhood school in our all-black or almost entirely black neighborhood. I don't remember any non-black kids being at the school in - when I was in first grade. And so that was not a school that was segregated by law, but it was de facto segregated, both by the nature of the neighborhood and by, you know, the fact that the few white parents who lived in the neighborhood didn't put their kids in the school. I say all that to say when it comes down to these issues, we've been talking in some fairly high-level terms about what's the nature of segregation and integration. Is it a legal term, or is it a reality?

Ms. BROWN: What you're referring to are parental choices. Parents and guardians have chosen to live in a specific neighborhood, and you're at - and the question really boils down to is whether government should be in the business of socially engineering our public schools to provide students with different experiences. Now, if we're talking about culture and viewpoint and things like that, then there certainly is a value that is placed on it, but those can be done through clubs, it can be done through community experiences and through the lessons that are taught. And the social science research to date is so inconclusive on whether or not there are really any educational benefits, that students are still learning their basic lessons. It's a matter of whether or not government should be in the business of social engineering, and our position is no, government should be neutral.

CHIDEYA: Anurima, how do you respond to that?

Ms. BHARGAVA: The reality of where we are in America today is we have not finished the work of Brown. We have not finished the work of trying to bring that level of equal education opportunity that students around the country deserve to our children. And because that work is not done, we still need these tools, and as many tools as we can have to be able to do that.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're certainly not going to settle this today, and the Supreme Court will settle this possibly in May, possibly in June. Sharon Brown, thank you, and Anurima Bhargava, thank you.

Ms. BHARGAVA: Thank you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Sharon Brown is principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California. Anurima Bhargava is assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She joined me from our NPR New York bureau.

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