Law & Courts Federal File

OCR Race Letter Draws Objection

By Mark Walsh — September 23, 2008 1 min read

The Department of Education’s office for civil rights has weighed in on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision on school districts’ consideration of race in assigning students to schools.

In a “Dear colleague” letter dated Aug. 28, the office boiled down nearly 180 pages of opinions by the justices in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District to barely two pages of analysis.

“The Department of Education strongly encourages the use of race-neutral methods for assigning students to elementary and secondary schools,” the OCR letter says. “Genuinely race-neutral measures” such as those based on a student’s socioeconomic status would not trigger the highest level of court scrutiny, the office says.

The letter takes no notice of the key concurring opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the cases from Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky.

“OCR’s interpretation of the decision is inaccurate in a number of respects,” says a statement issued last week by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, based in New York City.

Anurima Bhargava, the director of the civil rights group’s education practice, said the letter “is very limited in its reading” of the high court decision. “It’s as if Kennedy hadn’t written,” she said.

The court ruled 5-4 in June of last year that assignment plans in the two districts that sometimes relied on race-based assignments to achieve diversity in individual schools, violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

But Justice Kennedy wrote that while those districts used race in an unconstitutional manner, it would be permissible for districts to take race into account under certain circumstances, such as when choosing sites for new schools, drawing attendance zones based on neighborhood demographics, or allocating resources for special programs.

The LDF statement said that in contrast to the Education Department’s interpretation, “there is no requirement in Parents Involved that school districts only use race-neutral means to promote the compelling interests in diversity and avoiding racial isolation in their schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week

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