Diversity on the Docket
In its new term, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider two potentially landmark cases on whether public schools may take race into account in assigning students to schools.
School leaders attest to educational and social benefits from such diversity. They argue that local housing patterns historically tend to separate families of different races and may lead to schools that are racially homogeneous if the districts do not counter them with assignment policies that consider race.
But in two appeals to the high court, families in Jefferson County, Ky., and Seattle argue that such race-conscious plans have unconstitutionally denied their children the equal protection of the law.
The high court’s decisions in the cases could have a dramatic impact across the country, potentially affecting student-assignment plans in hundreds of districts, legal observers say.
The rulings would also be the first time that the court has addressed race in education since a pair of landmark 2003 decisions upholding the use of race in higher education admissions. Since then, the makeup of the court has changed, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito III joining during the last term.
The Bush administration is supporting the families’ appeals of lower-court decisions that upheld the race-conscious policies in Jefferson County and Seattle. The administration argues that the student-assignment plans were not “narrowly tailored,” and did not further “a compelling government interest.” Those are requirements for constitutionality that the Supreme Court has established for all government classifications based on race.
But the administration stops short of calling for the justices to overrule the core principle expressed three years ago in the University of Michigan cases—that race can be a factor in admissions when considered as part of an individualized review of an applicant.
The school districts argue that their plans, in the specifics, use race in ways that are narrowly tailored, and that maintaining racial diversity furthers important educational goals.
The cases, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (Case No. 05-915) and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (No. 05-908), have not yet been set for oral arguments, but those are likely to come later this fall.
Vol. 26, Issue 06, Page 27Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as Diversity on the Docket