High court rejects school integration plans
The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the Seattle school district's racial tiebreaker, along with a school-integration plan in Kentucky...
Seattle Times staff and wire services
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the Seattle school district's racial tiebreaker, along with a school-integration plan in Kentucky, but left the door open for the limited use of race to achieve diversity in schools.
The decision in cases affecting how students are assigned to schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle could imperil similar plans in hundreds of districts nationwide, and it further restricted how public school systems may attain racial diversity.
The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court's judgment. The court's four liberal justices dissented.
"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts said.
Yet Justice Anthony Kennedy would not go as far as the other four conservative justices, saying in a concurring opinion that race may be a component of school plans designed to achieve diversity.
To the extent that Roberts' opinion could be interpreted to foreclose the use of race in any circumstance, Kennedy said, "I disagree with that reasoning."
"A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."
He agreed with Roberts that the plans in Louisville and Seattle violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by the other liberals on the court, said Roberts' opinion undermined the promise of integrated schools that the court laid out 53 years ago in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
"To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown," Breyer said.
While Roberts said the court was being faithful to the Brown decision, Justice John Paul Stevens in a separate dissent called the chief justice's reliance on Brown to rule against integration "a cruel irony."
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, wrote a separate opinion endorsing the ruling and taking issue with the dissenters' view of the Brown case.
"What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today," Thomas said. "The plans before us base school assignment decisions on students' race. Because 'our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,' such race-based decision making is unconstitutional."
The two school systems in Thursday's decisions employ slightly different methods of taking students' race into account when determining which schools they will attend.
Federal appeals courts had upheld both plans after some parents sued. The Bush administration took the parents' side, arguing that racial diversity is a noble goal but can be sought only through race-neutral means.
The Seattle school district said it used race as one among many factors and relied on it only at the end of a lengthy process in allocating students among the city's high schools. Seattle suspended its program after parents sued.
Kathleen Brose, president of Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS), was emotional as she discussed the case Thursday.
"When the school district made this assignment they didn't look at the academic needs of these kids. They didn't look at the social needs of these kids. It's like they had no value except for their skin color," she said. "The thing that really bugs me the most about it is that they teach our kids in the schools that discrimination is wrong. You can't have it both ways. You just can't."
Harry Korrell, an attorney for the Seattle parents, said the decision means that school districts that aren't under a desegregation order have "no business making school assignment decisions based on race."
"If you look at the way the schools are now, five years since the school district has made any race-based assignments, they're still richly diverse schools. I think the best thing Seattle could do is drop the race component and simply let students go to to school where they want to." he said.
Korrell said he expected to see districts start to use more race-neutral methods to ensure school diversity based.
Despite the school district's loss, officials still viewed the decision as a victory.
"Today a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the principle of diversity in public education," said Gary Ikeda, the district's attorney.
Superintendent Raj Manhas pointed to Kennedy's opinion, which pointed to other methods districts can use to achieve diversity — redrawing school-attendance boundaries, for example, or offering special programs at certain schools.
"We are also gratified and very pleased that the Supreme Court went so far as to outline types of actions that school districts may pursue," Manhas said.
Sharon Browne, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which aided PICS in the case, said the decision will have "a tremendous impact on the rest of the nation." Browne cited several school districts that will be, or already are being challenged. One example is the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the Pacific Legal Foundation is challenging a policy that she said assigns students to magnet schools and to a free busing program based on their race. It is also challenging a policy in the school district in Berkeley, Calif.
The opinion was the court's first on the divisive issue since 2003, when a 5-4 ruling upheld the limited consideration of race in college admissions to attain a diverse student body. Since then, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who approved of the limited use of race, retired. Her replacement, Justice Samuel Alito, was in the majority that struck down the school system plans in Seattle and Louisville.
The Louisville case grew out of complaints from several parents whose children were not allowed to attend the schools of their choice. Crystal Meredith, a white, single mother, sued after the school system turned down a request to transfer her 5-year-old son Joshua Ryan McDonald, to a school closer to home.
Louisville's schools spent 25 years under a court order to eliminate the effects of state-sponsored segregation. After a federal judge freed the Jefferson County, Ky., school board, which encompasses Louisville, from his supervision, the board decided to keep much of the court-ordered plan in place to prevent schools from re-segregating.
The lawyer for the Louisville system called the plan a success story that enjoys broad community support, including among parents of white and black students.
Attorney Teddy Gordon, who argued that the Louisville system's plan was discriminatory, said Thursday, "Clearly, we need better race-neutral alternatives. Instead of spending zillions of dollars around the country to place a black child next to a white child, let's reduce class size. All the schools are equal. We will no longer accept that an African-American majority within a school is unacceptable."
Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said he was disappointed with the ruling because Louisville's system had provided "a quality education for all students and broken down racial barriers" for 30 years.
He said he was confident school leaders would come up with effective new guidelines.
The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff reporters Linda Shaw and David Bowermaster contributed to this story.
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