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Policies Using Race To Assign Pupils Attacked

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Encouraged by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, parents in several school districts are challenging policies that assign students based on race in order to maintain integrated schools.

Recent lawsuits in Boston, Philadelphia, and other districts accuse school officials of discriminating against students by requiring them to attend certain schools to keep enrollments racially balanced.

Only race-based assignments intended specifically to address past segregation are legal, the suits contend. Although the cases plow relatively new ground in school law, lawyers for the plaintiffs claim recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and voting-rights cases support their arguments.

"The Supreme Court is sending the strongest possible signal that the use of race by local governments is justified only in the most extreme circumstances," said Clint Bolick, the director of litigation for the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Washington.

Experts on both sides of the issue predict an increase in legal challenges to assignment policies based on race.

That belief, they say, stems from a combination of factors, among them the growing number of districts that have been declared desegregated. If a district has removed the traces of past segregation, then race-based assignments are no longer justifiable, opponents of such policies argue.

In a growing number of districts, race-based assignment policies have been faulted for hampering school reforms that would enable parents to choose where their children attend school.

Supporters of race-based assignment argue that courts will continue to condone policies that promote racial integration or diversity, without holding districts to the narrow limits sought by the recent lawsuits.

"Race-conscious student assignment has been an elemental part of school desegregation," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. Abandoning such policies would make school desegregation far more difficult and would likely spur a dramatic increase in racial isolation in schools, he said.

"You get to totally senseless policies if you don't have any racial goals in school-desegregation plans," Mr. Orfield added.

But Michael L. Williams, a former assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education under President Bush, said the legal and political support for such policies is crumbling.

"The reality is that there are millions of Americans who are scratching and clawing to get their kids the best opportunities in life," Mr. Williams said, "and they don't want those opportunities limited because of their respective racial and ethnic backgrounds."

Knocking on Closed Doors

Four decades ago, Kharisma McIlwaine's great-grandparents challenged a South Carolina law requiring blacks to attend schools separate from those of whites. Their lawsuit became one of several eventually considered by the Supreme Court in the historic Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation case.

Last year, when Kharisma tried to transfer to a Philadelphia elementary and middle school outside her neighborhood, she was turned away. The school had already reached its limit of black children allowed by the city's racial enrollment quotas: 65 percent of the total student population.

In a lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court, the parents of 10-year-old Kharisma and several other children--both black and white--challenged the legality of the quotas adopted by the district in the course of its long-running desegregation case.

"In essence, the school district has turned Brown v. Board of Education, the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, and the federal Civil Rights ACT upside down by precluding white and minority children from attending the schools of their choice in order to impose arbitrary and illegal racial quotas," the lawsuit contends.

The suit claims the district has not in recent years imposed the kind of segregation that would justify such race-conscious remedies. It seeks an end to the district's practice of assigning students and weighing their transfer requests on the basis of race.

In a similar suit filed this summer in a federal court in Florida, an organization of black community leaders has challenged a host of the Broward County district's assignment policies. Among them are the district's consideration of race in weighing admissions to its magnet schools.

Although the district has been under a desegregation order, the question of whether it is now unitary, or free from the vestiges of segregation, remains a matter of dispute.

Boston Latin Case

In other federal courts around the nation:

  • A white lawyer, Michael C. McLaughlin, has challenged the Boston district's rejection of his 12-year-old daughter's application to the Boston Latin School. The highly competitive school admitted minority children with lower test scores than his daughter's. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995).

    In the lawsuit filed last month, Mr. McLaughlin cited Adarand Contractors Inc. v. Pena, the Supreme Court's recent ruling on affirmative action. In it, the court said the federal government's use of racial preferences must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest, such as remedying past discrimination. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

    Mr. McLaughlin argues that the district has eliminated remnants of past segregation as a result of a 1976 federal court order that established racial quotas for Boston Latin and other city schools. Therefore, his suit claims, such quotas are no longer justified.

    The publicity surrounding the McLaughlin case has prompted local leaders to renew calls for an end to the quotas. District officials, however, argue that without the quotas Boston Latin and other schools would quickly become racially isolated.

  • The San Francisco school system is awaiting a federal district court's decision in a similar lawsuit filed by Chinese-American parents. They claim their children were unfairly subjected to higher admissions standards in applying to the prestigious Lowell High School so that the number of children of Chinese descent enrolled there would not exceed court-ordered caps. (See Education Week, April 5, 1995.)
  • Parents have challenged the authority of the Durham, N.C., school system, which is not under a court desegregation order, to use race in considering student assignments and transfer requests.

    Their lawsuit also contests the district's exclusion of white males from a special mathematics and science enrichment program. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

Controversy in Maryland

Last month, the Montgomery County, Md., school system denied two Asian-American kindergartners admission to a special school with a French-immersion program. Admitting the youngsters, officials in the suburban Washington district said, would harm efforts to maintain Asian enrollment at neighborhood schools.

The ensuing controversy brought national attention to the district's student-assignment policies, which were adopted voluntarily. A host of newspaper editorials denounced the quotas, with at least one comparing the district's race-based policies to South Africa's former system of apartheid.

The county school board has since reversed its decision, even though the Maryland state school board voted 6-3 in May to affirm the district's student-assignment policies in the face of similar criticisms.

Such policies, though controversial, serve a purpose, said William L. Taylor, a veteran civil-rights lawyer in Washington.

He noted that the Supreme Court has condoned efforts to diversify enrollments even in situations where school districts are not under court desegregation orders. Some districts are seeking merely to better prepare their students for life in a pluralistic society, Mr. Taylor added.

"It may be inevitable, under the best system, that kids may not get into their school of choice," said Mr. Taylor, who serves as the vice-chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington-based organization that lobbies for various civil-rights groups. "One has to look at whether the educational opportunities have been expanded."

Mr. Bolick of the Institute for Justice disagrees. "It would be a perverse development," he said, "to prevent a minority child from seeking educational opportunities in the name of remedying educational deprivations for that very child."

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