Law & Courts

Diverse Views Offered on Supreme Court Race Cases

By Andrew Trotter — October 23, 2006 5 min read
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Education organizations, civil rights groups, and scholars were among those filing a total of 57 friend-of-the-court briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court by the Oct. 10 deadline in support of race-conscious policies of the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., school districts.

In a pair of nationally watched cases that the court is scheduled to hear Dec. 4, the districts are defending their voluntary school assignment plans that use race as a tool to promote diversity.

“The locally elected board, steeped in the history of Seattle’s integration measures, made a careful and realistic judgment about the benefits and burdens of various student-assignment plans and determined that for the 2001-02 school year, race-neutral plans could not effectively achieve its three compelling interests and also accommodate its other important educational goals,” said the district’s brief, which was also filed this month.

Seattle’s plan allows students to choose their preferred high schools, but, when a selected school is oversubscribed, the district uses race as a tie-breaker in determining whether a student can attend it.

Jefferson County’s plan classifies students as “black” or “other,” and does not permit a student to enroll in a school if his or her presence would push its black enrollment below 15 percent or above 50 percent.

Defining the Issues

On the other side, the families of students who were denied their preferred schools under the two plans and who brought the cases now before the Supreme Court were backed by 11 friend-of-the-court briefs filed in August. The Bush administration also filed briefs in support of Parents Involved in Community Schools, an organization of Seattle families, and a lone parent, Crystal D. Meredith, and her son in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville. (“Diversity on the Docket,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

A Little Help From Their Friends

More than 60 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed in two cases in the U.S. Supreme Court on whether school districts may consider race in assigning students to schools.

From briefs supporting Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., parents who oppose the use of race:

• “The [Seattle] school district has provided no evidence that it is necessary or even beneficial to have the number of white students orbit near their proportion in the student population in order to attain the supposed benefits of diversity that it seeks.“ —The Center for Individual Rights.

• “[L]ower courts have recognized an expansive ‘diversity’ interest that unconstitutionally violates individual rights to equal treatment with little prospect of cessation.”—Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and the state board of education.

• “[E]mboldened by Grutter, public schools are aggressively imposing even more destructive quota systems with no end in sight.”—Project on Fair Representation, the American Enterprise Institute, and other groups.

From briefs supporting the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., school districts:

• “Louisville and Seattle’s plans are clearly consistent with the [post-Civil War] Reconstruction Amendments’ goals of incorporating all citizens into the civic, economic, and political life of the nation.” —60 historians of the Reconstruction era.

• “The Orwellian argument that voluntary integration efforts constitute racial discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, if validated by this court, would be an unwarranted and tragic reversal of historic proportions.”—NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

• “Transcending the mere achievement of diversity itself, [school boards] seek to provide the concrete and tangible educational benefits of a racially diverse learning environment.”—National School Boards Association.

SOURCE: Education Week

They contend that the use of race as a factor in assigning students to schools violates the right of equal protection of the law under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, a point picked up in several supporting briefs.

“Even if enacted with the best of intentions and thought to be benign, racial classifications and preferences can be the most divisive of all policies, containing within them the power to destroy confidence in the Constitution and in the idea of equality,” states the brief supporting the families by the Project on Fair Representation at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The briefs on both sides all seek to define the legal battleground on racial diversity and to influence the justices in their favor in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (Case No. 05-908) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (No. 05-915).

They discuss how previous court decisions have dealt with similar uses of race, notably the Supreme Court’s 2003 decisions in two cases on the use of race in college admissions.

In Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the court weighed the constitutionality of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate college and law school admissions policies, which took race into account in different ways. The rulings upheld race-based affirmative action in principle but struck down some aspects of Michigan’s admission policies.

Then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the pivotal vote in those cases, and her citation of friend-of-the-court briefs filed by U.S. corporations and retired generals in support of race-conscious admissions policies proved that such briefs could be influential.

‘The Wrong Message’

In its brief supporting the parents challenging the Seattle plan, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a legal-advocacy organization based in Sacramento, Calif., argues that the high court’s principles from the Michigan cases should apply only to higher education and not to K-12 public schools.

“By discounting equal protection, Seattle’s public schools are sending the wrong message to our children—that racial discrimination is more important than individual rights and liberties in today’s society,” concludes its brief.

The Center for Individual Rights, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, says in its brief backing the families that “the Seattle plan denies certain students the opportunity to attend their first-choice school because of their race.”

“Whether those denied are ‘white’ or ‘other than white,’ ” the center argues, “their personal rights are violated by a system erecting skin color as a criterion for allocating this limited resource.”

Some prominent education groups filed briefs on the side of the school districts.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents 66 urban districts, argues that districts have a “compelling interest in promoting racially integrated schools” because, first, “as all three branches of the federal government recognize, assuring equal educational opportunities to all children, regardless of race, is a national priority.”

The brief says that such a priority is undermined by racial isolation in schools, which schools cannot address if they are denied a “modest” use of race, such as that provided in the student-assignment plans, to counter the effects of segregated housing patterns.

Social Science Evidence

Leading civil rights groups also rallied around the school districts. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, for example, argues that if the Supreme Court accepts the families’ argument that the use of race to achieve diversity is unconstitutional, districts will be prohibited from adopting voluntarily the same policies that federal courts ordered them to follow only a short time ago.

Many scholars also submitted briefs on the side of the school districts. Amy Stuart Wells, an expert on school desegregation, argues there have been long-term benefits from desegregated schools, both for students after they have graduated and for society.

Citing social science research since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down racial segregation in public schools, her brief says that the benefits have become more apparent over time. Studies of individuals who attended desegregated schools, it says, have found that they are more open-minded, less prejudiced, and less fearful of other races, compared with peers who attended segregated schools.

Ms. Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, writes that because of their altered worldviews, many of the graduates say they find themselves far better prepared for life in a global society and more adept at reaching across cultures and nationalities to function in the international economy.

Anticipating some of those arguments, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s brief urges the high court to “make it clear that no social science exception to the equal-protection clause exists.”

Otherwise, the brief argues, “the floodgates will be opened to any and all claims of a compelling state interest based on so-called social science evidence.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Diverse Views Offered on Supreme Court Race Cases

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