Supreme Court rejects school racial diversity plans
In a major civil rights ruling, a narrow majority struck down two school-enrollment plans.
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"What do racial classifications do in these cases, if not determine admissions to a public school on a racial basis?" Roberts asks.Skip to next paragraph
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"Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin," he writes. "The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again – even for very different reasons."
In a 68-page dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said that to invalidate the Seattle and Louisville enrollment plans "is to threaten the promise of Brown."
"What was the hope and promise of Brown?" Justice Breyer asks. "It was the promise of true racial equality – not as a matter of fine words on paper, but as a matter of everyday life in the nation's cities and schools."
Breyer warns that the majority's position will undercut the larger significance of Brown. "This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret," he writes.
Both of the challenged enrollment plans in Louisville and Seattle attempted to address de facto segregation tied in part to housing patterns. The voluntary desegregation programs were aimed at preventing the school districts from sliding into a starkly segregated environment with minority students isolated in inner-city schools and white students isolated in suburban schools.
To achieve a meaningful mix, school boards in Louisville and Seattle decided that they would sometimes have to use race as a factor to determine which students could attend the most popular schools.
In Seattle, the school board set enrollment at the district's most desired high schools within 15 percentage points of the overall racial balance of the district's students. The balance was 40 percent white and 60 percent nonwhite.
Students were permitted to attend any of the district's 10 high schools. But because some schools were more popular than others, the board created a racial tiebreaker to determine eligibility to attend the most popular schools.
If a new student would cause that particular school's white or nonwhite student population to increase above the 55 percent cutoff, the student was barred from attending that school.
Opponents of the plan said Seattle schools were already diverse and that the race tiebreaker was a form of unconstitutional racial balancing.
Lawyers for the school board argued that integration efforts are not the same as racial discrimination. There is a fundamental difference between using race to segregate students and using it to integrate them, they said.
In Louisville, 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. School administrators set the exact racial mix at each school.
The program tries to encourage students to attend schools outside their neighborhood to help achieve meaningful diversity in every school in the district. School officials urge parents to be flexible in considering an array of second- and third-choice schools to avoid disappointment over being denied admission to a single favored school for racial reasons.
Parents opposed to the plan say it denies a government benefit based on skin color. Supporters say all schools in the district are essentially the same in offering a public education, so being admitted to one school instead of another does not amount to a benefit.
The two cases decided Thursday are Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (05-908) and Crystal Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (05-915). Complete decisions and dissents are available on the Supreme Court's website at www.supremecourtus.gov/index.html.
Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.
Major US Supreme Court rulings on school segregation
1896: Plessy v. Ferguson: Upheld "Jim Crow" laws designed to ensure racial segregation; established "separate but equal" doctrine
1954: Brown v. Board of Education: Ruled that segregation in public schools violates 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law
1968: Green v. County School Board of New Kent County: Found that "freedom of choice" plans were ineffective at achieving desegregation and had to be replaced by more effective strategies
1971: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education: Busing white and black students to achieve racial balancing in schools is constitutionally permissible
1978: University of California Regents v. Bakke: Declared unconstitutional a medical school's admissions policy that set quotas for the number of slots for minority students, but did not rule out race-based admissions policies
2003: Grutter v. Bollinger: Decided that the University of Michigan Law School's narrowly tailored race-based admissions policies are justified to foster racial diversity