Equity & Diversity

Mass. City Defends Use of Race in Assigning Students to Schools

By Karla Scoon Reid — June 09, 2004 9 min read
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Residents of this gritty, working-class city of immigrants seem almost embarrassed that Lynn, Mass., is at the center of a legal debate about school integration. For most people here, as the mayor says, the attitude is “live and let live.”

The city school district, which survived a legal challenge to its voluntary desegregation plan at the U.S. District Court level a year ago this month, is preparing to vigorously defend its efforts to integrate schools as the case heads to a federal appeals court.

Richard W. Cole, the assistant Massachusetts attorney general who is arguing for the district’s plan, emphasizes the sociological and psychological benefits of racial and ethnic diversity as a reason to preserve Lynn’s race-based student-assignment system. The approach—and the district’s battle to keep its desegregation plan—are noteworthy at a time when many districts have backed away from efforts to balance the racial makeup of their schools.

John R. Munich, a lawyer who has successfully argued for dismantling desegregation plans in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., says the Lynn case is being followed “very carefully” in education and legal circles.

“School boards all over the country are trying to walk a tightrope,” Mr. Munich said. “They’re interested in doing something to enhance diversity and not get themselves involved in expensive litigation.”

As Comfort v. Lynn School Committee heads to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, for argument later this summer, some legal observers believe Lynn’s plan may be bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in the University of Michigan law school case. That decision found that diversity was a compelling state interest and an acceptable reason to consider race in admissions, as long as it is based on an individual review of applicants.

‘This Works’

The 17-year-old desegregation plan here was voluntary, but was goaded by Massachusetts’ 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, which encourages districts to implement desegregation plans when a school or district’s enrollment is more than 50 percent minority.

In Lynn, students are guaranteed seats in their neighborhood schools. If students want to enroll elsewhere, their choices are based on where they live, the availability of space, and their race—in that order. Transfers that worsen the racial balance of either the receiving or sending school are prohibited.

Of the district’s 15,000 students, 38 percent are white, 34 percent are Hispanic, 16 percent are black, and 12 percent are of Asian origin. About 65 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Roughly 4,000 students took advantage of the transfer policy this school year, and 11 of the district’s 26 schools, including all three high schools, are deemed racially balanced. (Elementary schools are considered racially balanced if the percentage of minority students is within 15 percentage points of the district’s overall minority enrollment of 62 percent. Middle and high schools are balanced if enrollment is within 10 percentage points of that figure.)

In the plan’s wake came more than $200 million in state-financed renovations and construction of schools, multicultural training for teachers, equitable distribution of human and material resources to schools, and an academic-improvement plan. Massachusetts stopped providing such financial incentives in 2001.

District and school officials report that student test scores are inching upward, although they still lag behind state averages, that discipline problems have dropped, and that attendance is up. The number of white students leaving the district also has declined.

“What Thurgood Marshall aspired to in [Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka], Lynn really shows that this works,” Mr. Cole, the assistant attorney general, said of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that a half-century ago last month struck down legally separate schools for whites and blacks as unequal.

‘Behind Us’

The state intervened as a defendant in the Lynn case, which was filed in 1999, because the suit also questions the constitutionality of the Racial Imbalance Act. To the plaintiffs, a group of white and nonwhite parents in Lynn, the desegregation effort is discriminatory, unnecessary, and outdated.

“That hateful business [of segregation] is behind us,” said Chester Darling, a Boston lawyer representing the plaintiffs, who have appealed. “They can’t claim the benefit of racial harmony by imposing racial quotas on little kids. That can be attributed to people being nice over a period of time.”

But in her 162-page opinion last June, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner rejected arguments that Lynn’s student- assignment plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law.

“K-12 education involves a setting in which diversity has a different resonance than in any other,” the judge wrote in her decision, adding that the Lynn plan passed muster under the highest level of constitutional scrutiny because K-12 schools have a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity to foster good citizenship.

A magnet for immigrants located just south of Boston, Lynn takes quiet pride in the relative ease with which its multiethnic residents live, work, and attend school together.

Always considered a port of entry for Italians, Russians, Greeks, and other newcomers, this New England city of 90,000 today boasts a Cambodian church and advertisements for Hacienda Realty—clear signs of the growing Southeast Asian and Latino communities.

As Lynn struggled to come to grips with the influx of immigrants, some educators recall near “race riots” in the schools. Student test scores plummeted. And white parents pulled their children out of the schools.

“The plan has enhanced the feeling of acceptance among students,” said Nicholas P. Kostan, the district’s superintendent. “I think it would be a mistake for Lynn to abandon this plan.”

“The fear would be that if you take race out of this, we’re going to resegregate ourselves,” added Janet F. Birchenough, the district’s equity director. “We will have lost the ability to create a climate of diversity.”

But what district leaders view as a system that promotes larger social goals felt like discrimination to Samantha Comfort, a white parent whose request to transfer her 5-year-old daughter to a school closer to her day-care provider was rejected repeatedly by district officials in 1999. Ms. Comfort, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C., recalls being told: “‘We have a seat— just not for your white child.’”

Ms. Comfort contacted Mr. Darling, who had successfully argued that Boston Latin School’s race-based admissions policy was discriminatory.

Michael Williams, another lawyer representing those challenging Lynn’s desegregation plan, questioned the assertion that it’s responsible for positive changes in the schools. Race-neutral improvements, including new buildings and a standardized curriculum, are more likely causes, he said.

At the time of the trial, Mr. Williams noted that the percentages of minority students in Lynn schools ranged from 25 percent to 84 percent. Because both sides agree that students receive an equitable education at every school, he said, the existence of racially imbalanced schools undercuts the district’s theory that the percentage of minority students is the “controlling factor” in producing benefits.

Psychological Benefits

Mr. Cole knew that he would face a burden in proving that Lynn could use race in assigning students to schools. In 1998, the same federal appeals court that will hear the Lynn case struck down the race-conscious admissions policy of Boston Latin and two other selective Boston public high schools.

So Mr. Cole built his defense at the trial around trying to show the positive psychological and sociological effects on students of attending an integrated school—a social science approach he believed had been missing from recent desegregation cases.

“You can put in all of the same resources and all the same academic changes, and racially isolated schools would achieve all of the same benefits,” Mr. Cole said. “But they would not address the race problems that were an epidemic in the school system.”

John Dovidio, a social psychologist, said Lynn has the makings of a “racial tinderbox,” given its declining economy and high levels of immigration. Instead, Mr. Dovidio, a professor of psychology and the provost at Colgate University who testified for the district, said he was surprised to find that multiculturalism was a way of life for students.

“When you look at prejudice and discrimination and how we try to reduce it, in the abstract, you can change the way you think, but that doesn’t change the way you feel unless you have a lot of experience,” Mr. Dovidio said. "[Lynn students] have a deep commitment to multiculturalism without having to think about it.”

Even in integrated schools, forms of self-segregation emerge, but that’s a rarity in Lynn, said Melanie Killen, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland College Park who testified for the district. Cross-racial friendships and interracial dating are part of the norm, she said, while students report that conflicts about race occur infrequently.

Patricia M. Barton, the principal of Pickering Middle School, admitted that race is still a factor here, although she stressed that educators have “zero tolerance for intolerance.” Still, she said, “It’s not utopia.”

Student Views

Asked this spring about the high level of diversity at Classical High School, students seemed almost puzzled. Most responded to questions about race by saying: “What’s the big deal, anyway?”

While some live in racially segregated neighborhoods, several students said they had friends of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“There’s so much diversity race-wise, we don’t notice it anymore,” said 17-year-old Aaron Legere, who is white.

Elizabeth Taveras likens Classical High to a “tossed salad.” The 17- year-old Latina recalled conversations she had last year with a Muslim girl. “She’s just like any of us,” said Ms. Taveras, who is Christian. “She just has different beliefs.”

As the debate about the effect and necessity of Lynn’s integration efforts continues, “Lynners” seem almost oblivious to the lawsuit’s national significance. They’ve remained far from the polarizing desegregation battles that have left other cities—including neighboring Boston— with emotional and political scars.

But some residents here are quietly concerned that Lynn’s fate could be transformed by an unfavorable ruling by the federal appeals court.

“We’ve got to let history be our teacher,” said Karen Horner, an African-American parent. “There was a reason this program was put in place before. What a lot people of color may not know is that we’ll get left behind again.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as Mass. City Defends Use of Race in Assigning Students to Schools


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