Equity & Diversity

Court Rejects Seattle Policy Weighing Race

By Caroline Hendrie — August 11, 2004 5 min read

Legal experts see a federal appeals court decision striking down Seattle’s system for assigning students to high school as a significant development in the debate over what districts can voluntarily do to promote demographic diversity in the post-desegregation era.

The 2-1 ruling late last month by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, centers on how last year’s decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on race-conscious university-admissions policies apply in the K-12 context. With court fights over race-based policies in public schools continuing to crop up, the ruling marks the first time a federal appellate court has undertaken a thorough analysis of that question.

See Also...

See the accompanying timeline, “Race in Seattle.”

Whether the opinion will stand as binding law in the nine Western states included in the 9th Circuit remains uncertain, however. Seattle school officials said last week that they intended to ask the full 9th Circuit court to rehear the case.

And with federal appeals courts in Boston and Cincinnati considering similar cases, some lawyers were predicting last week that the Supreme Court would eventually be asked to clarify just how the rules laid down in the Michigan affirmative action cases apply to elementary and secondary schools.

“We’re likely to see opinions that go in various directions until, if and when, the U.S. Supreme Court decides this,” said William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group that monitors enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Mr. Taylor, who has represented plaintiffs in school desegregation cases over the years, decried the 9th Circuit panel’s ruling and predicted that the full appeals court would uphold Seattle’s system, which used race as a tiebreaker in some admissions decisions.

Quota System?

But Sharon L. Browne, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., which filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing the plaintiffs who challenged the Seattle district’s policy, called the 9th circuit panel’s ruling “a groundbreaking decision” signaling that “across the nation that these types of programs are being disfavored.”

And lawyers challenging a Massachusetts district’s voluntary-integration policy hailed the 9th Circuit ruling as fresh ammunition as they prepared for oral arguments last week before the federal appeals court in Boston.

“We’ll be relying heavily on that as a precedent,” said Chester Darling, the president of the Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights, the Boston group that is representing the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Lynn, Mass., schools. (“Mass. City Defends Use of Race in Assigning Students to Schools,” June 9, 2004.)

Seattle’s legal battle began four years ago, when a group called Parents Involved in Community Schools challenged the 46,000-student district’s policy of using a racial tiebreaker to help apportion seats in high schools that had more applicants than spaces.

The policy kicked in when schools deviated from the districtwide proportion of white-to-minority students by a set amount. The district suspended use of the tiebreaker in 2002, after an earlier adverse court ruling. (See accompanying timeline, “Race in Seattle.”)

In a sharply worded opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, the 9th Circuit panel majority held on July 27 that Seattle’s policy amounted to “an unadulterated pursuit of racial proportionality.” Thus, the majority reasoned, the policy violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, as well as the main federal civil rights law prohibiting racial discrimination in programs receiving federal money.

Judge O’Scannlain said that last year’s Supreme Court rulings in two cases involving the University of Michigan had laid out the rules for deciding the Seattle dispute, and that the district’s policy utterly failed to hold up under those criteria.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the high court held 5-4 that the admissions policy at the university’s law school was constitutional because it considered race only as part of an individual review of all candidates. The court’s companion 6-3 decision in Gratz v. Bollinger invalidated the university’s undergraduate-admissions system, in part because it automatically assigned bonus points to certain minority applicants.

In his 67-page opinion, Judge O’Scannlain said the Michigan decisions established that “racial quotas are strictly prohibited,” and he concluded that the Seattle tiebreaker was “virtually indistinguishable from a pure racial quota.”

He said the Seattle policy ran afoul of the principle that “an educational institution may not treat an applicant’s race or ethnicity as the touchstone of his or her individual identity, but instead must meaningfully evaluate each applicant’s potential diversity contributions in light of all pertinent factors.”

Spirited Dissent

In a 45- page dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Susan P. Graber sharply disagreed with Judge O’Scannlain’s reading of the Michigan rulings in coming to her conclusion that the Seattle policy passed constitutional muster.

The Supreme Court, she wrote, “has never decided a case involving the consideration of race in a voluntarily imposed school-assignment program that is intended to promote integrated secondary schools.”

The Michigan rulings, she said, “provide several guiding principles” in deciding precollegiate lawsuits such as the Seattle case, but “do not control in the secondary-school context.”

Instead, she suggested, high school assignment policies should be viewed in light of other Supreme Court cases granting school districts authority to avoid racial segregation.

Last year’s Grutter decision established a principle of major interest to advocates of integration in K-12 schools by making clear that fostering educational diversity—and not just remedying past discrimination—could sometimes justify race-conscious policies. But Judge Graber argued in her dissent that districts have reasons for promoting integration that are subtly different from those of universities.

The law school wanted diverse classrooms to improve its students’ legal training, she wrote, while the Seattle district was focused on the “socialization and citizenship advantages” of demographically mixed schools “so that its graduates will become tolerant, productive, and well-adapted members of this racially diverse society.”

Patti Spencer, a spokeswoman for the Seattle schools, said district leaders had decided to fight the appellate ruling even though they are reconsidering their high school assignment policy as part of a broader effort to craft a five-year strategic plan.

“The board’s key commitment is to the goals of equity, access to high-quality schools, and diversity,” she said. “This case is really about the power and authority of a locally elected school board to make decisions that it believes further those goals.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion Q&A Collections: Challenging Normative Gender Culture in Education
Ten years of posts on supporting LGBTQ students and on questions around gender roles in education.
1 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Video These Schools Served Black Students During Segregation. There's a Fight to Preserve Them
A look at how Black people managed to grow a solid middle class without access to so many of America’s public schools.
According to The Campaign to Create a Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park, the two-teacher school was developed between 1926-1927 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2009. The building is now owned by Cain’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, which sits adjacent to it.
The Russell School (also known as Cain’s School), a Rosenwald school in Durham, N.C., pictured on Feb. 17, 2021.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Equity & Diversity Letter to the Editor Former Teacher: Essay on Equity Falls Short
A retired teacher critiques an essay about equity in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'Students Deserve to Know Our History'
Two educators wrap up a four-part series on how teachers should respond to attacks on critical race theory and lessons on systemic racism.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty