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Equity Campaign Says: Ruling on Public School Racial Balance Efforts Is a Setback, but Leaves Some Options

The Campaign for Educational Equity, based at Teachers College, Columbia University, has denounced today’s decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in the school diversity cases, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (Louisville, KY.) and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. While the Court’s decision to strike down two comprehensive voluntary integration plans was blunted by Justice Kennedy’s separate opinion that some use of race in assigning students to schools is permissible, school districts’ options for implementing comprehensive integration plans have been narrowed considerably, Campaign leaders said.

“While Kennedy’s decision is significant in guarding against a legal precedent that race cannot be considered at all, school officials across the country will be more challenged in their effort to achieve racial integration in practice. This is a setback on the road to a more racially integrated and equal society, but not as bad as it could have been,” said Amy Stuart Wells, Deputy Director of The Campaign and Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College. An amicus brief written by Dr. Wells, one of the nation's leading experts on desegregation, was part of the evidence the Court considered in the case.

“By holding that two well-conceived and comprehensive plans for undoing racial isolation in large urban school systems are unconstitutional, a majority of this court has tied the hands of hundreds of locally elected public education officials trying to balance and stabilize their schools,” Wells said. “Such a ruling is clearly out of touch with the values of our increasingly diverse society and the overwhelming evidence of social science research.”

Despite the legal precedent established by the Court in its landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, American schools have steadily re-segregated since the 1980s, as many standing Court orders to districts to integrate were lifted. Today’s decision limits integration efforts even further by  making it more difficult for local school officials  to devise and implement voluntary – as opposed to court-mandated -- efforts to racially balance their schools.

“Although we strongly disagree with the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment adopted by Chief Justice Roberts and three other members of the Court, we are heartened by Justice Kennedy’s  concurring decision which leaves the door open for pursuing alternative methods to avoid racial isolation in the public schools,” said Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity. “Kennedy represented the key swing vote in this 5-4 decision, and that means that his interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment will be the key precedent in this area.” Justice Kennedy agreed with the Chief Justice and three members of the Court that the particular voluntary desegregation plans in Louisville and Seattle were not “narrowly tailored” and thus, that they did not pass constitutional muster. However, Kennedy wrote clearly in his separate opinion that “To the extent the plurality opinion suggests the Constitution mandates that state and local school authorities must accept the status quo of racial isolation in schools, it is, in my view, profoundly mistaken...”

Enacted in 2001, the Jefferson County plan, which includes the city of Louisville, stipulates that all schools -- including magnet schools -- must have a minimum black enrollment of 15 percent and a maximum of 50 percent. The Seattle “Open Choice” plan is designed to make high schools mirror, as closely as possible, the city's overall racial composition of 60 percent minority and 40 percent white.

Wells’ brief -- filed through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and co-signed by Jay Heubert, also of Teachers College; Linda Darling-Hammond, of Stanford University; Jomills Braddock, of the University of Miami; Jeannie Oakes of UCLA, along with Rebelldocuments the benefits of integrated schooling, both to graduates themselves and society as a whole. It also chronicles repeated previous rulings of by the Court that support precisely the kinds of integration efforts undertaken by the Seattle and Jefferson County districts.  Federal appeals courts had previously affirmed the validity of the Jefferson County and Seattle plans. 

Kennedy’s decision, while striking down the Louisville and Seattle plans, would allow districts to use other measures, such as strategic “site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of neighborhood demographics; allocating resources for special programs; and recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion.”

Such measures, Wells notes, are helpful, but are less likely to have kind of comprehensive, systemic impact on racial integration that the Louisville and Seattle plans have had. “This will be the new challenge for school districts and our society,” she said. “To accomplish an important societal goal – racially integrated public schools – via far more limited means.”

Teachers College’s Campaign for Educational Equity was founded in 2005 to further the College’s commitment to assuring all children access to a more equal and meaningful education. The mission of the Campaign is to study the barriers to greater equality in education and to advocate for policies and practices that assure students from all racial/ethnic and social class backgrounds have equal educational opportunities. Through its research initiative and policy programs, the Campaign is helping to broaden understanding of such opportunities by examining, among other things,  the role of community, segregation, and concentrated poverty in the lives of children and in their school experiences.

In November,  the Campaign will host a major equity symposium, which will explore the implications of Justice Kennedy’s decision in depth and will consider the broad variety of  avenues for helping school districts achieve and maintain racial diversity that are allowed under that ruling.  Speakers and presenters will include Legal Defense Fund Director Ted Shaw, Harvard Law School’s Lani Guinier; and Hoover Institute scholar and frequent court critic Eric Hanushek.

The Symposium will also highlight the research and legal theories that contribute to understanding of  Chief Justice Roberts’  decision which, according to Wells,  ignores not only solid social science evidence, but also the beliefs of the vast majority of Americans who say that diversity in public education is important for the future of U.S. democracy and America’s standing in a global economy.  

“The overwhelming body of evidence shows that integrated education provides benefits not only to minority students, but also majority students and the population at large,” Wells said.

Both Rebell and Wells vowed the The Campaign will work with educators and political leaders to continue to identify constitutionally appropriate methods for helping school districts achieve and maintain public school diversity, since there are strong benefits to the students and society for doing so… 

“We stand committed to partnering with local leaders in Louisville, Seattle and other community around the country in pursuit of the crucial goal of diverse, inclusive quality education for all of our children,” said Rebell. “In addition we plan to work with the U.S. Congress to strengthen the No Child Left Behind Act and with state courts which are enforcing educational guarantees in state constitutions to continue to implement the vision of equal educational opportunity which was articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown.”

To view the full text of the decision or read additional comments by Wells and others reacting to the Supreme Court’s decisions, visit  http://scintegration.blogspot.com

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