DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. In 1974, rock throwing, jeering white crowds met black students being bused to a south Boston high school. A federal judge ordered the busing plan to integrate Boston public schools. Ever since the landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Ruling that struck down separate schools for blacks and whites, the federal courts have weighed in on how public schools integrate. Tomorrow the issue is on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket. Justices will hear oral arguments in two cases from Seattle and Louisville. School districts in those cities use race as a factor in determining where students will go to school in order to keep diverse classes. But the plans are being challenged as unconstitutional and discriminatory. Critics of race-based diversity plans say such programs, even ones ordered by federal judges, are not in line with the original Brown decision. Christine Roselle is a political scientist at Boston University.
Ms. CHRISTINE ROSELLE (Boston University): Most people think of Brown as a very radical decision, but in fact Brown said thou shall not discriminate on the basis of race. Neighborhood schools are fine because they are a race neutral assignment policy. And then we had all these busing plans in the '70's that in fact discriminated on the basis of race, thus standing Brown on its head, and I think it's time to go back to Brown, which is thou shall not discriminate on the basis of race.
ELLIOTT: That's also the position the U.S. Justice Department is taking in these cases, the same government agency that has been responsible for enforcing court-ordered school desegregation plans. In the 52 years since Brown, the Supreme Court has shifted its stance on just how far governments should go to integrate schools. Early on, it called on schools to desegregate with deliberate speed and even identified factors to measure a school system's compliance. But in a 1974 case from the Detroit area, the court rejected cross district busing to remedy white flight to suburban schools. Another milestone came in a 1991 case from Oklahoma City.
Mr. GARY ORFIELD (Harvard University): And in that case the Supreme Court said desegregation was temporary, that after it had been implemented for a while, a local judge could dissolve a desegregation order.
ELLIOTT: Gary Orfield is Director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard. He says many cities have returned to sending students to neighborhood schools, and today 73 percent of black students attend schools that are majority non-white.
Mr. ORFIELD: The court during this period has gone from the leading edge of racial change and integration to the leading obstacle to racial change and integration to the major force for resegregating our society. And this case could be the last straw in that process.
ELLIOTT: If the Supreme Court rejects race as a factor in determining school assignments, it could send countless systems scrambling to come up with an alternative plan.
Ms. BETH SHEPPERD (Assistant Superintendent, Champaign Public Schools): We have 9,400 students, a very diverse student population.
ELLIOTT: That's Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent for the Champaign Public Schools in Illinois. Whites make up about half of the student population there. In 1998, black parents sued over racial inequities, and now the Champaign system operates under a court approved consent decree to remedy what Shepperd described as an achievement gap. The district does use race as a factor in assigning students to schools.
Ms. SHEPPERD: As a school district, we value the diversity in our schools. If we went back to attendance zones for, say, lets just say, then housing patterns are segregated, and you would be looking at children in this community who might never meet children of other ethnicities. And I think that's a part of education in this country, and I would certainly hate to see that given up.
ELLIOTT: Now, how does race factor in your new system?
Ms. SHEPPERD: Race factors in as far as student assignment to schools, and this was probably the most controversial portion of the consent decree. I think it was implemented in 1998. When a child enters kindergarten, a parent chooses three schools they would like to attend, and there is a lottery held. And the students are given preferential weight to their request if they live within 1.5 miles of the school or they have a sibling in the school. So these preferences are given. Using those measures, 95.4 percent of all families receive their first, second or third choice. The way race plays in is that, according to consent decree, our schools need to be in compliance with racial fairness guidelines. And those guidelines were identified as every school would be within 15 percent plus or minus the student demographics at that educational level.
What that means is that your student population might be 35 percent African-American at the elementary level. Then none of your schools would be over 50 percent African-American and none would be under 20. So that's the way the assignments are made.
ELLIOTT: Now for a long time it was the federal government and the federal courts telling school systems you must have as a goal integration. And now the message from the federal government seems to be discouraging programs like the one that you have. How does that affect you as you go about your day-to-day decision making in trying to operate the schools in Champaign, Illinois?
Ms. SHEPPERD: Certainly we want to listen to the federal government, but what we are trying to do is provide excellence and equity for every student in our schools, and that's going to be difficult to do when your schools are segregated.
ELLIOTT: Would it be easier for the school district if the court did strike down these kinds of plans, if you didn't have to focus so much on numbers and balance and plus or minus 15 percent?
Ms. SHEPPERD: You know, that's - I couldn't say that it would be easier because, we would have just a different set of problems. When you have segregated schools, you have a different set of problems. And I think that what we'd like to see is local control and let us deal with our own problems. It's when you make a one-size-fits-all mandate that we do run into trouble.
ELLIOTT: Beth Shepperd is an assistant superintendent of public schools in Champaign, Illinois. Thank you for talking with us.
Ms. SHEPPERD: Thank you.
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