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Originally published June 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 29, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Former schools superintendent watched case closely in D.C.

Last June, when Joseph Olchefske heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to take up the Seattle School District's racial-tiebreaker...

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Last June, when Joseph Olchefske heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to take up the Seattle School District's racial-tiebreaker case. He felt it was a bad omen.

"With the new Bush appointees on the bench," he said, "I did not think they would be supportive of our efforts."

The court ruled 5-4 against the district Thursday, with Bush appointees Samuel Alito and John Roberts in the majority.

The high-school "Open Choice" program was a strategy that Olchefske, the district's superintendent from 1998 to 2003, supported in his commitment to diversity. "It was the central premise of what I was about as superintendent," he said.

"Was it perfect?" he asked. "No. But was it the right thing to do, to try? Absolutely.

"One of the main challenges of the 21st century is understanding other people, interacting with people who are different from you," he said. "These are skills you don't learn in textbooks."

Olchefske was forced out as Seattle superintendent in 2003 amid a $35 million financial crisis that outside auditors later blamed on him and other top administrators. Since then, Olchefske, 49, now runs the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on educational trends and coaches new school superintendents.

He has followed the Seattle schools case closely. Last December, he tried in vain to get a ticket to hear the arguments at the Supreme Court.

As he sees it, the case helps illustrate a major shift in the focus of education. Education used to mean sorting out who was going to college and who was destined for manual labor. Now, he explained, it's about delivering learning to all students and pushing for achievement across the board.

The lawsuit is more complex than its proponents have told the public, he said. Sitting in a coffeehouse in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, Olchefske grabbed a paper napkin and diagrammed the Seattle district, marking its 10 traditional high schools and the Magnolia neighborhood.

"When Franklin High School was doing better than Ballard," he noted, "Magnolia parents insisted that should be their neighborhood school." But when Ballard improved, parents decided Ballard was their neighborhood high school.

Olchefske acknowledges there were flaws in the Open Choice program and its presentation. Initially, he recalls, Seattle parents welcomed the approach. Ninety percent of the parents got their first choice, he said, but those who didn't like the school to which their children were assigned also had a point.

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Because minorities and immigrants tend to have "a softer voice" in the process, he said, he felt part of his job was to raise that voice for them.

That comes from his background, he said. Olchefske was raised in the Minneapolis-St. Paul of the 1960s, when Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a social liberal, reigned. The Sisters of Notre Dame drilled into him and his six brothers and sisters the need to help the less fortunate.

The proof of the effects of Open Choice, Olchefske said in a blog interview on edspresso.com earlier this year, is demonstrated by the decreasing diversity in Seattle schools since the program was terminated in 2001. "White" schools are whiter, he said: "Like students" are now surrounded by "like students."

"If you don't think that it's going to hurt their opportunities later," he said, "then it's no problem."

Olchefske complained that legal rulings in recent years present schools with a Catch-22. He said, "Having diversity without calling it diversity is impossible."

He paused when asked if the Open Choice program, like other well-meant diversity programs under court attack in the past two decades, is proof of the axiom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

"Well, perhaps not the road to hell," he said, "but certainly the road to disappointment."

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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