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Court axes efforts at desegregation

A shaky 5-4 majority says public school diversity plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., violated students' Constitutional rights.

Published June 29, 2007

Riviera Middle students rush the buses at the school in St. Petersburg in April. The court's ruling Thursday declared programs for racial balance unconstitutional, such as busing.
[Willie J. Allen Jr. | Times]
» Fast Facts
To integrate or not
At issue: Whether public school systems in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle - and, by extension all school districts - have a "compelling interest" in continuing to integrate schools. Also: Whether using race in assigning kids to schools violates their constitutional right to be treated equally under law.
The cases: Crystal D. Meredith vs. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education; Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No. 1.
How they started
Louisville: In 2002, Crystal Meredith's 5-year-old son, Joshua McDonald, was denied a transfer to another school because he is white. His transfer would have been at odds with the district's "managed choice" plan, which said black students may not make up less than 15 percent of a school's enrollment or more than 50 percent. Meredith joined a lawsuit previously filed by other parents who were denied seats in magnet schools. Joshua eventually got into the school his mother wanted, but the case continued.
Seattle: White students were shut out of a newly rebuilt high school in their area when nonwhite students were admitted as part of the district's racial balancing plan. Some white families did not get any of their other top choices in the city's "open choice" program. A group called Parents Involved in Community Schools was formed to challenge the School Board. It sued in July 2000.
What the U.S. Supreme Court said
A 5-4 majority ruled that both school systems went too far in using race to assign students to schools. Justices say they violated the constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected two big-city school desegregation plans, but its splintered opinion shed little light on how far other districts could go when trying to create diverse classrooms.

The reaction: happiness among advocates who see the ruling as a triumph for individual rights, disappointment from those who view it as step back from decades of racial progress, and uncertainty about how, exactly, school districts like Pinellas and Hillsborough should proceed.

In a 5-4 ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said racial balancing plans in the Seattle and Louisville, Ky., school systems violated the Constitution. The majority said students' right to be treated equally under the law outweighed the benefits achieved when the districts classified children by race.

Thursday's victors were plaintiff parents in the two cities whose children, mostly white, had been shut out of schools when the districts' race-conscious enrollment rules kicked in.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race, " Roberts wrote.

The decision inspired a biting retort from Justice Stephen Breyer, who complained in a 77-page dissent that the majority had failed to heed decades of case law involving schools and race - particularly the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that led to desegregation.

The court, he wrote, stripped away the only effective tools districts have to prevent racially isolated schools, which "can create serious educational, social and civic problems."

Breyer concluded: "This is a decision that the Court and the nation will come to regret."

Years of lower court rulings had seriously eroded school districts' ability to engage in traditional desegregation practices such as busing. But Thursday marked the first time the high court weighed in, officially marking the end of an era.

In a twist that brought uncertainty to the ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy partly divorced himself from the majority. He complained in a separate opinion that Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito would have school districts simply ignore the problem of segregated schools.

"I cannot endorse that conclusion, " Kennedy wrote, calling the majority "profoundly mistaken."

Kennedy suggested a few methods districts might use to make "race-conscious" student assignment decisions without violating the Constitution. But they would have to do it, he said, "in a general way" and without "treating each student in a different fashion solely on the basis of a systematic, individual typing by race."

Local school officials were left to sort out what that language meant.

"That's one justice talking, but the effect of it is we do not have a majority of justices saying, 'Forget it guys. We are color-blind when it comes to student assignment, ' " said Pinellas School Board Attorney Jim Robinson. "I think he just didn't want to shut the door on the possibility of a school board coming forward with a plan that would pass constitutional muster."

Pinellas School Board member Nancy Bostock, once a Georgetown law student, said she wouldn't want to risk going too far with race based on one justice's opinion.

"You've got four who say, 'No you can't use race, ' four who say you can and one who says, 'Well maybe just a little bit, ' " Bostock said. "It would be a very unsettling position to be the district that tries to find where that fine line is."

Pinellas officials, who are designing a new student assignment plan, have been eagerly awaiting the ruling. Robinson said he will distribute a memo to the School Board next week suggesting how to interpret it.

The district is in transition, having just emerged from a four-year choice plan that encouraged families to integrate voluntarily.

A proposed new plan, to be completed by November, would assign students based on where they live. It also would lead to several schools becoming majority or predominantly black for the first time since 1970.

Board members say they want to encourage diversity but they are placing more weight on survey results that say black and white parents consider schools close to home more important than integrated schools.

The ruling changes little in Hillsborough, where busing for desegregation ended three years ago. In its place, Hillsborough adopted a race-neutral choice plan, designed to encourage students in city neighborhoods to attend suburban schools, and vice versa.

But participation was low from the start, and Hillsborough schools have rapidly lost ground when it comes to racial diversity.

The number of largely black schools in Hillsborough has climbed 25 percent since busing ended. Last school year, 35 schools met the one-time standard for being racially unbalanced - 40 percent or more of their students were black.

At the same time, many suburban schools are increasingly white.

Hillsborough School Board members were waiting to see how the Supreme Court ruled to consider their options in stemming the tide.

"I had hoped that there would be a ruling that districts could find a way to keep our schools from becoming resegregated, " said Doretha Edgecomb, the school board's only black member.

Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said nothing in Hillsborough's plan runs afoul of the new ruling. But the court provided few clear clues as to what more districts can do.

"They did say that diversity is a compelling state interest, " he said. "Somehow, somewhere there has to be a plan that would pass muster."

The question, he said, is whether anybody can come up with a concept narrowly tailored enough to satisfy this court.

The ruling is expected to prompt hundreds of school districts to change their student assignment plans. It brought responses from all sides of the political spectrum.

"Instead of speaking with one voice, today a deeply divided court has narrowed the voluntary integration options for schools seeking to fulfill (the Brown ruling's) promise, " the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund said in a statement.

The group, which has been active for years in Pinellas' desegregation litigation, said the nation's public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1970. It called on communities to find new ways to address the problem.

"We will remain a country committed to diversity, " the group said. "No court decision can change that."

Kathleen Brose, president of the Seattle parents group that brought one of the lawsuits addressed in Thursday's ruling, was emotional as she discussed the case at a news conference.

"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."

As for the court, both sides used the landmark Brown ruling to make their points.

Roberts said it established that students could not be kept out of schools because of their race. And that, he indicated, was just as true for the modern-day white students kept out of schools in the name of diversity.

Breyer bristled, calling it "a cruel distortion of history" to compare the two eras.

Kennedy referred to Brown as well, using it to rebut Roberts' statement that districts should simply stop "discriminating on the basis of race."

Kennedy said 50 years of experience since Brown "should teach us that the problem before us defies so easy a solution."

Information from staff writer Letitia Stein and the Seattle Times was used in this report. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at or (727) 893-8923.

[Last modified June 29, 2007, 07:05:06]

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