The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights Monitor - Volume 17, No. 1 - Winter 2007

Supreme Court Hands Down Major Decision on School Integration

On June 28, 2007, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the voluntary desegregation plans of school districts in Seattle and Louisville in a decision that will have far-reaching implications for the future of the nation's schools.

While the Court's decision was specific to the Seattle and Louisville plans, it limited the ability of communities to voluntarily and consciously address racial isolation and inequality in public schools.

The cases, Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County School Board, marked the end of the Court's longest period without review of a K-12 school desegregation case since its unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Today, the nation's public schools are more segregated than they were in 1970. Concerned about how these trends were affecting their own children and community, locally-elected school boards in Louisville and Seattle adopted student assignment measures to foster desegregated, diverse schools.

From 1975 to 2000, the Jefferson County Public Schools district, which includes Louisville, was under a court order to dismantle its system of historically segregated schools. After the court order was lifted, the school district voluntarily continued to implement its program to prevent the schools from backsliding into segregation. The district is the 28th largest school district in the nation, with more than 97,000 students, one-third African-American, attending 150 schools.

Under its plan, elementary schools were grouped into 12 local clusters, with parents able to rank the schools within the cluster that they live. About 95 percent of elementary students were given their first choice within their local cluster. Middle and high schools were not grouped by cluster and all students were initially assigned to their local schools, known as their "resides" schools. Any student who didn't want to attend his or her assigned school could request a transfer to any school, regardless of whether it was in their local cluster. Despite this option, in 2003, Crystal Meredith decided to sue the local school district, claiming that her son was unlawfully denied admission to the school of his choice based on his race.

The Seattle school district adopted its voluntary school choice program to avert a lawsuit by African-American parents. The program allowed its students entering high school to rank their preferences among the city's 10 high schools, instead of assigning all students to a particular school.

Under this program, 80 percent of students got their first choice school, but five of the city's high schools did not have enough space to accommodate every student who chose it. Most of the remaining students were assigned based on keeping siblings together or which school was closest to their home, unless the school was racially isolated.

In 2000, a small group of parents whose children got their second choice sued the school district, arguing that its school choice program was unconstitutional.

Lower courts upheld both districts' plans, and both cases were appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 4-4-1 split decision, the Court struck down the specific policies used by the Louisville and Seattle communities, but five Justices also said that educational diversity and combating segregation are compelling governmental interests that governments may pursue through careful race-conscious efforts.

The Court did not categorically reject measures to bring about racial diversity and avoid racial isolation in schools, other than those employed in the Seattle and Louisville plans. A majority of the Court -- Justices Kennedy, Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Souter -- left open the way for school districts to use race-conscious measures to achieve these interests, but Justice Kennedy rejected the use of statistical criteria to achieve the goal.

Civil rights groups were greatly troubled by the plurality opinion of Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito, which would have outlawed almost all effective efforts to promote inclusion in our nation's schools. This view -- even though it did not carry a majority of the justices in this decision -- could threaten programs that seek to provide opportunities and access to students of color throughout their K-12 educational career. In a demonstration of the deep splits within the Court, Justice Stephen Breyer issued a strong dissent from the bench condemning the plurality's position.

The decision will have a widespread impact on school districts and communities around the country who will need to determine how to continue to promote diverse, inclusive schools in an effective and constitutionally permissible manner. Civil rights advocates emphasize that a majority of the Court made clear that a range of other affirmative measures remain available to pursue integration and inclusion in schools. According to Justice Kennedy, who wrote the controlling opinion, "School boards may pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds and races through other means, including strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race."

Civil rights groups underscore the fact that desegregation remains the policy of the U.S., as expressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and elsewhere, and that desegregation remedies are required when courts find that school authorities have intentionally segregated schools. William L. Taylor, chair of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights and Vice Chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, pointed out that there are a number of avenues to desegregation that are not vulnerable to legal attack.

He cited the transfer provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which allow students to move from schools in need of improvement to those that are doing better, moves that frequently result in desegregation.

The Civil Rights Monitor is an annual publication that reports on civil rights issues pending before the three branches of government. The Monitor also provides a historical context within which to assess current civil rights issues. Previous issues of the Monitor are available online. Browse or search the archives

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