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Back to the Supreme Court: racial balance in schools

On Monday, the court takes up cases from Seattle and Louisville on the role of race in school enrollment.

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Parents who oppose the plan say Seattle schools are already diverse and that the race tiebreaker is an attempt to achieve unconstitutional racial balancing.

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Lawyers for the school board counter that the desire to integrate public schools is not the constitutional equivalent of seeking to maintain a segregated system.

Supporters say the Seattle plan is consistent with the promise made by the high court in Brown v. Board of Education. There is a fundamental difference between using race to segregate students and using it to integrate them, they say.

The same debate is under way in Louisville. There, the Jefferson County School Board established a broad goal that each of the district's schools should have black student enrollment set between 15 percent and 50 percent of the school's total enrollment. African-American enrollment districtwide is about 35 percent. It is up to school administrators to determine the exact racial mix at each school.

The program is aimed at encouraging students to attend schools outside their own neighborhood, but flexibility is the key to the Jefferson County plan. It seeks to offer options for those parents who want their children to attend school close to home, yet it also seeks to achieve meaningful diversity in every school throughout the district.

The impact of being denied admission to a particular school for racial reasons is cushioned by an approach that urges parents – both black and white – to work with district officials to identify acceptable alternative schools. "You just keep working the process through with parents," says Pat Todd, director of the Jefferson County Schools student assignment plan.

"I don't mean to tell you it works perfectly. I have [some] dissatisfied parents. It is controversial. It is imperfect," Ms. Todd says. But in a broad way, the program is a microcosm of how democracy works, she says. "It is not about perfection. It is about managing the imperfections to people's greatest level of satisfaction. That is what this process is all about."

Not all schools in the Jefferson County system use race as a deciding factor. A federal judge has ordered that four schools offering unique educational programs cannot use race in selecting students – including Louisville's historically black Central High School. Since the judge's ruling six years ago in a case brought by African-American students, black enrollment at Central has risen steadily and now stands at 83 percent.

In addition, districtwide "traditional" schools use a random computer-drawn list to decide who attends those schools.

Todd says she and her staff work to ensure that the proportion of black applicants to white applicants at traditional schools reflects the districtwide goal for black enrollment. That is done in the hope that the random draw will subsequently reflect the desired black-white mix, Todd says.

A similar random draw would not work at the elementary school level, Todd says. It would eliminate the flexibility to allow dissatisfied parents to choose a second, or third, or fourth school option. It is that follow-up effort that helps blunt the impact of being denied admission to a first-choice school because of a student's race.

Todd says although the district uses some race-neutral alternatives, meaningful integration requires using race. "I don't think we can keep our school desegregated over time without the yardstick and vision of some racial guidelines," she says.

Others disagree. The school district's approach "denigrates a 5-year-old's self-worth and self-esteem by comporting him to be color coded throughout his educational career," says Teddy Gordon, who represents Crystal Meredith, a mother who is challenging the Louisville plan.

Mr. Gordon says in his brief that the school district may only use a race-conscious plan to remedy intentional discrimination. Anything else is unconstitutional racial balancing, he says.

The school district's lawyer, Francis Mellen, says that since all schools in Louisville receive similar funding and offer similar programs, students are not deprived of a benefit when they are denied enrollment in their chosen school.

"The student has not been denied an education, only a choice," Mr. Mellen says.

Decisions in the two cases – Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Crystal Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education – are expected by the end of the court's term next summer.