Equity's Day in Court
"The decision last June by the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate racial balancing plans in [the Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky] school districts was the clearest signal yet that the nation has entered a new post-desegregation era in which the vision espoused in Brown v. Board of Education-'"that of a federal judiciary with an abiding commitment to integrated schools-'"is no longer the operative condition," TC President Susan Fuhrman said this past fall at the opening of the College's third annual Symposium on Educational Equity.
But just how profound that change will be, and what it really entails for closing the achievement gap that separates poor, typically black and Latino students from their wealthier white counterparts, was open for debate.
Ted Shaw, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), said that in “the constant struggle over the place of race in this country…diversity has become the only rationale that the Supreme Court respected.” Shaw was referring to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion that while schools do have a “compelling interest” in maintaining classroom diversity, districts may not ensure diversity by basing classroom assignments on the race of individual students. Shaw said many other programs also are now at risk “because of this Orwellian consciousness that says race consciousness is racism. The legal discourse is dishonest and the social and political discourse is dishonest.”
Others felt the Court’s ruling, however flawed, presents an opportunity for continued pursuit of equal educational opportunity. “There are five different opinions in the case and that is a place of potential movement,” said john powell, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “We do a disservice if we read this case narrowly and think this case is over.”
Indeed, Anurima Bhargava, Director of LDF’s education practice, said that under Kennedy’s opinion, the vast majority of programs used in Kentucky to assure racial integration remain 100 percent permissible. But, she said, districts will have to be creative to achieve racial balance within the parameters of Kennedy’s opinion.
“It’s not just about race anymore,” she said. Classroom diversity must now be defined to include a balance of low- and high-performing students, rich and poor students, and other demographics.
Rhoda Schneider, General Counsel and Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, said districts should not panic but instead review integration programs to make sure they’re defensible.
“The most powerful court in the land has some tough competition—the practitioners who are working their magic to do whatever it takes to safeguard integration in the face of an unsympathetic federal judiciary,” she said.
To Michael Rebell, Executive Director of TC’s Campaign for Educational Equity, it’s the magic of another approach—educational adequacy litigation—that offers the current best hope for disadvantaged students. Plaintiffs in adequacy suits, which seek increased funding for poorer districts, have prevailed in 21 of 27 states since 1989.
“The experience of the last 30 years has proved the pessimists wrong,” Rebell said, referring to those who doubted that state courts could compensate for the federal judiciary’s steady retreat from an active pro-integration stance. “I’m here to say that the experience of the educational adequacy cases proves there is life after bad Supreme Court decisions.”
Published Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2008