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Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as Race-Based Assignment Challenged

Race-Based Assignment Challenged

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White parents in Boston and black parents in Louisville, Ky., are turning to the federal courts this summer in pursuit of a similar goal: eliminating race as a factor in assigning students to their local schools.

Mirroring the national divisions over the value of integration and how it should be achieved, the two cases have rekindled deeply emotional debates that cut across racial lines. Both cases underscore the uncertainty and historic role reversals that have become increasingly common as the drive to desegregate American schools that began half a century ago winds down.

In Boston, the scene of some of the nation's ugliest desegregation-related violence a generation ago, the school board was poised to vote this week on whether to scrap the use of race in student assignment.

The expected vote comes in response to a federal lawsuit brought by the families of four white children and a local advocacy group that favors neighborhood schools. They filed the suit on June 21--the 25th anniversary of a federal court ruling that touched off waves of busing-related turmoil in the city.

"The race-based student-assignment policy stands in the way in reform," said Ann F. Walsh, the president of Boston's Children First, the neighborhood-schools group spearheading the suit. "It's also illegal."

As of late last week, the Boston school committee had not issued a formal response to the lawsuit. But board members made clear their interest in settling the case, given what they perceive as slim odds of successfully defending the race-based assignment plan.

"Nobody wants a series of protracted court expenditures that will detract from our goal of improving quality across the system," said Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant. "Recognizing the long odds against prevailing, the committee is leaning toward a modification of the policy."

Curveball in Kentucky

In Louisville, meanwhile, a federal court fight is also crystallizing debate over the role of race in assigning students.

The battle was triggered by a suit filed in May of last year by six African-American parents seeking to end racial quotas that prevent hundreds of black students each year from attending a historically black high school in the city. District policy requires that African-Americans make up from 15 percent to 50 percent of each school's enrollment, and Central High School has reached that upper limit. ("Suit Challenges Integration Plan in Louisville," May 6, 1998.)

Last month, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II threw all sides in the case a curveball when he ruled that some aspects of a 1975 decree ordering the Jefferson County school system to desegregate were still in force. Lawyers for the plaintiffs and for the 92,000-student district, which serves Louisville and its suburbs, had been operating under the belief that the decree had been dissolved in 1978, when another federal judge ended active supervision of the case.

The ruling is expected to result in a broad attack on the district's entire student-assignment plan, rather than a challenge focused on admission to Central High.

The first step, though, is for the plaintiffs and the district to go head to head in court over the question of whether the 1975 decree should be fully lifted.

If the plaintiffs prevail in their effort to get the decree dissolved, Judge Heyburn noted in his June 10 decision, the district's race-based assignment policies would be vulnerable to being found unconstitutional. The plaintiffs intend to make just such an argument.

As in Boston, much of the debate in Louisville centers on whether removing race-based enrollment quotas would trigger resegregation and a redistribution of resources unfavorable to mostly minority schools.

"We're saying that we need to keep the order in place to avoid resegregation," said Frank J. Mellen, the Jefferson County district's outside counsel in the case.

The African-American plaintiffs, however, say they are far less concerned about racial balance than about minimizing the busing of black students and improving their academic achievement. "This situation is like medieval medicine," said Carman W. Weathers, a member of Citizens for Equitable Assignment to School Environment, or cease, a group backing the suit. "It's not working, but they say, 'Let's do more of it.' "

In Boston, the new suit is the latest salvo in a campaign by Children First and others to win a return to neighborhood-based schools. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints the school board, has recently voiced qualified support for that goal, but critics say he is moving too slowly.

School Leaders Chided

The plaintiffs contend it is unconstitutional for the system to assign students based on race. Beyond that, they say the district's "controlled choice" assignment plan is stacked against white youngsters. Still, they firmly deny that resegregation is their ulterior motive. On the contrary, they argue that the schools are effectively segregated because white enrollment has dwindled so dramatically to less than 15 percent.

"The schools are not diverse because of this controlled-choice program," said Patrice A. Gattozzi, an officer of Boston's Children First and a plaintiff in the suit.

Last week, an ad hoc group of Boston parents who support the race-based assignment plan urged Children First to drop its suit. The parents, who are mostly white but also include some blacks and Hispanics, argued that without racial-balancing efforts, schools would become more inequitable.

Calling school leaders "weak and ineffective" for failing to stand up for a race-conscious assignment plan, Steven A. Backman a spokesman for the parents, said officials had "not done a good job of explaining their policies and defending them in a consistent way."

But Superintendent Payzant pointed out that the system had vigorously but unsuccessfully defended itself against two lawsuits in recent years challenging race-conscious admissions policies at its most prestigious high school, Boston Latin School.

In February, the board reversed course and dropped plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an appellate ruling that ordered the district to adopt a race-blind admissions system at the school. Supporters of affirmative action had urged the district not to pursue the case, fearing that it could yield a decision invalidating race-conscious policies nationwide.

"I wouldn't say that's being timid or reserved in fighting for what we believe in," Mr. Payzant said.

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Pages 1,14

Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read the report, Resegregation in American Schools, from the Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, June 1999. The study examines recent trends in school resegregation.
  • In "When 'Civil Rights' Means Civil Wrongs," David Horowitz argues that "increasing numbers of civil rights supporters are concluding that affirmative action is not only having little or no effect on the income and education gaps, but is actually destructive to the people it is supposed to help." Salon Magazine, Sept. 15, 1997.
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