High School students in Seattle who will be affected by the recent Supreme Court decision.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Across U.S., a New Look at School Integration Efforts
By TAMAR LEWIN
New York Times
The Supreme Court ruling striking down voluntary programs to integrate schools in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., left hundreds of school districts struggling yesterday to assess whether they must change policies that use race as a factor in school assignments.
Many lawyers said the 5-to-4 ruling would not end a half century of litigation over school desegregation but rather reignite it, as school districts turn to alternative methods for achieving diversity.
“The decision leaves unanswered questions about when race may be considered, and unanswered questions lead to more litigation,” said Sally Scott, a Chicago lawyer whose firm, Franczek Sullivan, represents dozens of Illinois school districts, some of which use assignment plans that consider race.
But one thing that seems certain, education lawyers agree, is that the decision will lead more districts to consider income as a race-neutral means of achieving school diversity, as is already done in Wake County, N.C.; La Crosse, Wis.; Cambridge, Mass.; and elsewhere.
Louisville, whose plan was struck down by yesterday’s ruling, could move in that direction.
“We didn’t have a, quote, Plan B, ready in case we lost,” said Stephen Imhoff, one of seven members of the Jefferson County school board that oversees the Louisville schools at issue in ruling. “But I began bringing up socioeconomic diversity with the board five years ago, and I think it will be one of the viable options we will discuss. Our board believes that diversity is valuable, and we will work to maintain it.”
Sharon Browne, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that supported the parents suing Seattle and Louisville, said at a news conference yesterday that in addition to the foundation’s current litigation against policies in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., schools, her group has identified several other districts, including Lynn, Mass., and Rochester, whose policies now seem ripe for challenge.
There are no reliable statistics on how many districts try to achieve racial balance by using race in decisions about which students go to which schools; estimates range from a few hundred to nearly 1,000. Some states specifically call for such plans.
In Massachusetts, for example, Lynn is one of about 20 districts with a voluntary plan complying with the state Racial Imbalance Act, which provided financial incentives for diversifying schools.
Districts have turned to a variety of strategies to maintain diversity — setting numeric ranges for racial representation in schools, strategically locating schools to attract specific racial groups, setting aside some seats in magnet programs for students of a particular race or forbidding transfers that would tilt a school further into dominance by one race.
The Louisville and Seattle cases were brought by parents whose children were not allowed to go to the school of their choice because of plans that seek to keep racial balance within a particular range.
Deciding how school assignment plans will have to be changed to comply with the ruling will require school boards to show some creativity, said Francisco Negrón, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.
“The court doesn’t give guidelines, and it’s not going to be one size fits all,” Mr. Negrón said.
While the decision makes clear that race cannot be the factor deciding whether a student will be allowed to attend a particular school, he said, the court left some room for districts to take race into account. They can locate schools to promote integration or perhaps assign students based on diversity indexes that take into account their poverty or language proficiency.
In Seattle, where the practice of using race to assign some students to high schools was suspended for the last five years while the case was making its way through the courts, school officials cast the ruling as more victory than defeat, saying it would provide guidance for their efforts to promote racial diversity.
“A majority of the Supreme Court affirmed the principle of diversity in public education,” said Gary L. Ikeda, the general counsel for Seattle Public Schools.
Because it already suspended its race policy, Seattle will not be forced to scramble the way other school districts may have to in light of the ruling. When asked the practical impact of having the race policy struck down, Raj Manhas, the district superintendent, said, “In reality, none.”
Mr. Manhas said the district already was taking steps to encourage racial diversity through other means, including placing highly sought after International Baccalaureate and dual-language programs in locations where they are likely to draw a diverse student body.
In a nation where housing patterns are largely segregated, efforts to integrate schools have been a hot button in education for more than a half-century. There was the fight over segregation that led to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the widespread busing battles in Boston in the 1970s and the long and intimate federal court oversight of desegregation in many of the nation’s cities.
Many of the nation’s largest urban districts now have so few white students that any large-scale effort at racial balance would be impractical.
New York City was largely unaffected by the decision, although officials in the Department of Education said they were considering using the ruling to seek legal action to overturn two court orders from the 1970s that placed racial quota systems at eight middle schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
Chancellor Joel I. Klein has said those quotas are antiquated and no longer reflect the makeup of the neighborhoods, which have seen white flight and the arrival of scores of new immigrants.
Since 1990, as judges ruled that the effects of past segregation had been remedied, court orders were lifted in many districts. But some of those same districts, along with others that were never under court order, voluntarily adopted desegregation plans.
Jefferson County, the Louisville-area district that yesterday’s ruling was concerned with, revised its plan repeatedly after coming out from its court order. It now has some of the most integrated schools in the nation, keeping black enrollment in most schools between 15 percent and 50 percent by encouraging, and occasionally obliging, white students to attend schools in black neighborhoods and black students to attend schools in white ones.
Fran Ellers, a white parent who sends her children to a school in a black neighborhood, said yesterday that she was disappointed with the ruling.
“I have been so proud of Louisville’s very diverse school system,” Ms. Ellers said. “My son has a group of buddies, from all over the county, and they’re black and white, and only one is from our neighborhood. Going back to neighborhood schools would be a big loss.”
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said about 40 districts consider family income in assigning students.
“If you switch to socioeconomic status,” Mr. Kahlenberg said, “not only do you get a fair amount of racial integration that’s legally bullet-proof, but the research shows that for individual students, it’s more closely aligned with achievement, with higher test scores, than racial integration.”
William Yardley contributed reporting from Seattle, and Jennifer Medina from New York.