Law & Courts

Scholarly Power on Display in High Court Race Cases

By Andrew Trotter — December 01, 2006 4 min read
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When the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices take the bench on Dec. 4 to hear oral arguments about the use of race in assigning students to public schools, social science research might not be at the top of their minds.

But not for lack of effort by groups representing hundreds of psychologists, political scientists, economists, historians, and other social scientists who signed several friend-of-the court briefs attempting to convey the weight of scholarship in those fields about racial diversity in society.

Most of that weight is stacked on the side of the Jefferson County, Ky., and Seattle school districts, whose consideration of race in their student-assignment plans is being scrutinized by the high court. The policies, with some variations in each district, use race as a secondary determinant—after parent choice, sibling status, and other factors—in placing students in schools.

Families suing the school districts in the two cases say their children were harmed and treated unfairly when they lost out on their preferred schools because of their race.

But social science provides strong reasons to allow such use of race in school assignment, according to a panel convened in Washington on Dec. 1, three days before the oral arguments.

“Sound policy derives from sound social science,” said Felice J. Levine, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association, which filed a brief in the cases on the side of the school districts and organized the event. The AERA brief represents a consensus of hundreds of studies, all of them published in juried scholarly publications, she said.

“Our primary client is the research base,” she said.

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, described recent research that has produced strong evidence that having diverse schools has significant positive effects on achievement at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Academic benefits have been measured specifically in mathematics and language skills, she said.

She said that diverse schools are more likely to have stable populations of both teachers and students, which she called a “very big bonus” academically.

Research has also concluded, she said, that “racial isolation is harmful to the achievement of African-American and Latino students.”

Those strong findings mark a breakthrough from research 20 years ago, which was “inconclusive” about the effects of racial diversity on learning, according to Ms. Mickelson.

Recently developed research methods, such as “hierarchical level modeling,” have helped researchers to disentangle the effects of family background from the effects of racial composition of schools and classrooms to produce clearer findings. Those methods “make it no longer reasonable to argue that empirical findings on race are inconclusive,” Ms. Mickelson said.

Another panelist, Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, presented research findings described in a brief to the court signed by 553 social scientists, also filed on the side of the school districts.

The brief describes the rapid demographic changes going on in the United States, as well as “resegregation” that has been taking place in U.S. communities over the past 15 years.

Angelo N. Ancheta, a lawyer for the AERA, who helped write the association’s brief, said that, based on previous Supreme Court decisions, the justices are expected to put the student-assignment plans to several legal tests, such as whether the use of race serves a “compelling governmental interest,” based on their underlying goals, and whether the plans are “narrowly tailored” to achieve those goals.

“It’s important to note that the court is not obligated to look at social science research,” he said. “The court operates on its own terms.”

Dissenting Views

Not all social science opinion on the two cases has fallen on the side of the school districts.

David J. Armor, a professor of political science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.; Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, in New York City and a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; and Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University and also a Manhattan Institute fellow, submitted a brief on the side of the families in the two cases that is based on their own review of the social science literature on racial diversity.

They argue there is no evidence of a “clear and consistent relationship” between desegregation and academic achievement and long-term outcomes such as college attendance and jobs. They also found no clear and consistent relationship between racial balance in K-12 schools and social outcomes such as racial attitudes, prejudice, and race relations.

Roger Clegg, in an article posted last week on the Web site of the National Review, attacked as “controversial and disputed” the social-science research relied on the Seattle and Jefferson County districts to justify their race-conscious policies.

Mr. Clegg, a lawyer, is the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank in Sterling, Va., that opposes race-based admissions policies.

“Social scientists are on both sides of most issues,” Mr. Clegg said at another recent panel discussing the upcoming school race cases.

At the AERA event, an audience member asked the panelists to compare the research evidence supporting, or discrediting, the benefits of diversity in K-12 education.

The research in support wins handily, the social scientists agreed.

But Mr. Ancheta, the AERA lawyer, stressed that “Supreme Court justices are not social scientists.”

Legal arguments and the facts of the cases are likely to carry greater weight with them than scholarly research, he said.

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