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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court reenters the world of school desegregation. In cases from Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, the justices will examine what, if any, steps school boards may use to ensure that schools are racially mixed.

Louisville schools with 97,000 students encompass both city and suburban areas and have a racial composition of about two thirds white and one third black. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: In 1975, two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court decreed an end to racial segregation in public schools, there finally was a reckoning in still-segregated Louisville. A federal judge ordered implementation of a desegregation plan just weeks before school was to begin.

Carol Haddad remembers that time as chaotic.

Ms. CAROL HADDAD (PTA Board Member, Louisville, Kentucky): There were fires in the streets. We had to put monitors and police on buses because bricks were being thrown at students going into certain areas. Over at the school behind my home they brought in the National Guard and used it for the bomb squad.

TOTENBERG: Haddad, a white parent, was so infuriated by the plan that she decided to run for the school board.

Ms. HADDAD: So I ran to oppose it. And I've come a long way. Taken a big turn since then.

TOTENBERG: Such a big turn that, still on the school board, she's now a staunch advocate for continuing a race-conscious system of assigning children to schools even though Louisville is no longer under any legal requirement to do so.

Ms. HADDAD: And the parents really like it.

TOTENBERG: Not so Crystal Meredith(ph), a white mother who sued the Louisville school board over her son's assignment.

Ms. CRYSTAL MEREDITH: It's about this school board saying that we want him to be a certain place because of his race.

TOTENBERG: The school board's program is based on a combination of neighborhood school assignment, choice, and racial balancing. In elementary school, each child is assigned to a neighborhood school. If a parent wants a child to go to another school, the parent can choose among up to 10 schools in an assigned cluster that's scattered throughout the greater metropolitan area, and transportation is guaranteed.

Crystal Meredith's neighborhood school and first choice for her five-year-old son Josh was a year-round school. But it had begun classes seven weeks before she registered for school and was already full. Her second choice was close to her home but not within her designated cluster so she was assigned to another school, which was in her cluster but was farther away from her house.

Meredith's application for a transfer was denied in a letter she received from the school system.

Ms. MEREDITH: The Office of Student Services has disapproved your transfer request. The transfer would have an adverse effect on desegregation compliance.

TOTENBERG: Under the county guidelines, with a few exceptions, each school must have no less than 15 percent and no more than 50 percent minority students. More than 90 percent of all students get their first or second choice. In Meredith's case, she did not immediately appeal the transfer denial so her son remained at the assigned school until she did appeal two years later and was granted the transfer.

Her lawyer, Teddy Gordon, says that doesn't change the fact that the school board's race-conscious student assignment plan is unconstitutional.

Mr. TEDDY GORDON (Attorney): This is a pure quota. We've color-coded children.

TOTENBERG: The school board hotly disputes that characterization. Pat Todd is director of student assignment.

Ms. PAT TODD (Director of Student Assignment, Louisville School System): Race is one of several criteria that is used.

TOTENBERG: Others include trying to keep siblings together, accommodating day care pickup schedules and other special circumstances. Todd points to Crystal Meredith's successful appeal as a prime example of how the system accommodates special needs.

The 15 to 50 percent minority enrollment guideline is so broad and has so many exceptions, she says, that it's hardly an inflexible quota. But Sharon Browne of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation disagrees.

Ms. SHARON BROWNE (Pacific Legal Foundation): If you're the wrong color of skin, your transfer application is denied.

TOTENBERG: The quota question is more than semantics. The Supreme Court has said repeatedly that fixed numerical quotas are unconstitutional race discrimination. In the higher education context, however, the court three years ago reaffirmed that race can be one factor in deciding who gets into elite state institutions because the state has a compelling interest in fostering diversity in higher education.

The question in this case is whether a similar rationale applies to primary and secondary schools where no child is denied a place. To supporters of the Louisville plan, diversity is more important in early grades than it is in college. Opponents counter that there are other race-neutral ways of achieving diversity, such as assignment by socio-economic status. But Louisville parents have rejected that approach as intrusive.

What the parents want is important, the school board says. It points to the fact that white students were fleeing the Louisville public schools by the thousands until the board adopted a plan in the mid-1980s that combined race-conscious student assignment with choice. Suddenly, school attendance stabilized.

Indeed in contrast to the national trend in which public school racial concentration has increased, in Louisville it has done the opposite. A survey conducted by the University of Kentucky found 77 percent of Louisville parents favoring the racial guidelines, even though it means that a majority of the children are bussed, often from one end of the sprawling school district to the other. The reason for the guidelines' popularity, says PTA President Paula Wolf, is that there are so many different programs and approaches to educating children offered throughout the district. To cite just one example, a parent can choose a strict traditional approach, or something else.

Ms. PAULA WOLF (PTA President, Louisville, Kentucky): We know kids have different learning styles, different interests. I have we have one child that would done finely that traditional program. I have one who would have driven the teachers insane and he probably would have, you know, been removed. Because he doesn't just think outside the box, he doesn't acknowledge that there's one there.

TOTENBERG: PTA Board Member Mary Myers says the race-conscious assignment plan has also equalized school resources.

Ms. MARY MYERS (PTA Board Member, Louisville, Kentucky): My children do not have to sit next to a white child to learn, but they need the resources of that school. And they all get the same resources.

TOTENBERG: What's more, she says, diversity is more than a word.

Ms. MYERS: I just like to say that because I'm 48 years old, came from a segregated school system.

TOTENBERG: School board member Carol Haddad echoes that sentiment.

Ms. HADDAD: Children today see other children differently than they saw back in '75. They like all the kids. They don't differentiate between them. And I think that is really, really important as they grow up and go into the real world.

TOTENBERG: Haddad argues for a local control of the schools, noting that public approval of the school assignment program is so high that school board members are routinely reelected by high margins. And Teddy Gordon, the lawyer who is challenging the program, came in dead last in a field of four when he ran on a neighborhood school platform to represent a predominantly white area. The Bush administration and its former Solicitor General Ted Olson point out, though, that before 1954 racially segregated schools were highly popular too.

Mr. TED OLSON (Former Solicitor General, United States): To deny people opportunities on the basis of race because you've been reelected by a high popular vote just won't cut it under the Constitution.

TOTENBERG: The Constitution, he says, requires that the government be color-blind. It cannot discriminate to offset societal discrimination. Frank Melon, the school board's lawyer, says that's simplistic since the Louisville plan is an evolution of what the federal courts ordered until just six years ago.

Mr. FRANK MELLON (Attorney): It would be very odd that what is legally required one day by the segregation decree becomes forbidden the next day when the court dissolves the decree.

TOTENBERG: Mellon says that without some race-conscious student assignment the city's segregated housing patterns would end up re-segregating the schools. PTA board member Mary Myers says a few disaffected parents shouldn't be able to spoil what she calls a winning system.

Ms. MYERS: I just believe that you shouldn't turn a whole system back because you couldn't get what you want.

TOTENBERG: The Louisville plan, however, faces an uphill battle in the Supreme Court, where the court's two newest justices are widely viewed as hostile to affirmative action plans of any kind. Indeed, in a voting rights case last term, the court's new chief justice, John Roberts, opined it is a sordid business this dividing up by race.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News.

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