Narrowing the path to public school diversity

Federal appeals court ruling against a Boston high school that used race as a factor in admissions may reshape secondary-school policies and affect desegregation cases.

The question is one of the most sensitive in America today: How far should schools go in promoting diversity?

Boston Latin School, a prestigious public high school, thought it had the answer, admitting half its students based solely on grades and entrance-test scores and the other half weighted by race. In fact, the publicly funded exam school also valued diversity enough to go to court over it.

But last week a federal appeals court ruled that Boston Latin's race-based admissions policies were illegal - a decision with important implications for the debate over affirmative action nationwide.

As the country's first ruling on the constitutionality of racial preferences at the high school level, the decision is expected to force many public-school administrators to rethink their policies - at least for magnet and other specialized schools where admissions policies are stricter.

At the same time, the ruling adds to a growing body of legal opinion that says schools must be very careful in using racial diversity as a factor in admissions. Indeed, the Boston Latin ruling comes on the heels of a 1996 federal appeals court ruling against the University of Texas at Austin, which said diversity in education is not a compelling government interest.

Implications for desegregation

Many people considered that decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals just an aberration by a conservative tribunal. But the ruling by the more liberal First Circuit Court of Appeals adds weight to the growing backlash against the use of diversity in admissions - and could even affect desegregation cases.

"Many are wondering whether the [1978] unanimous Supreme Court opinion that ruled schools could take account of race in order to diversify still survives in light of recent court rulings," says Robert Post, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley.

The ruling in Boston, a city that has gone through wrenching court-ordered desegregation, stems from a lawsuit by a white family whose daughter was denied admission to Boston Latin. Her grades and test scores gave her a rank higher than some of the qualifying students whose race became a factor in their admission.

"We do not question the School Committee's good intentions," the ruling read. But, "The policy is, at bottom, a mechanism for racial balancing - and placing our imprimatur on racial balancing risks setting a precedent that is both dangerous to our democratic ideals and almost always constitutionally forbidden."

Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University, says last week's ruling will lend weight to school districts fighting to end forced busing as a means of desegregation. "I hope the court is saying that school officials should devote much less effort to worrying about racial mix, and start worrying more about how to better educate children," he says.

In order to use race as a factor, the Supreme Court has said a school must prove a compelling government interest, an ongoing discrimination that warrants diversification, and absence of other avenues. In the Boston case, "there was very little to demonstrate that all other avenues had been exhausted," says Mr. Thernstrom, an expert witness for the plaintiffs.

Researching the value of diversity

The Boston Latin ruling made it clear that the value of diversity must be proved.

"It seems that the judges are not exactly saying that diversity is an unimportant aim, but that the Boston Latin School did not prove the value of diversity," says Meredith Phillips at the University of California, Los Angeles."As [researchers], we need to come up with a more compelling case that diversity has positive outcomes."

But the Boston case raises the fundamental question: What is diversity?

"Boston Latin School confused intellectual diversity with racial diversity, in essence, reducing it to skin color," says Terry Pell, senior counsel at the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, which brought the Texas case.

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