Court Ruling Likely to Further Segregate Schools, Educators Say
By Amit R. Paley and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 30, 2007; A04
The nation’s schools, which have become increasingly segregated in recent decades, are likely to become even more racially divided as a result of this week’s Supreme Court decision curtailing the use of race in school integration plans, attorneys and educational experts said yesterday.
About 1,000 out of the 15,000 school systems in the country currently use race in some way to decide where children go to school, said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Many of those districts are expected to revamp or abandon those race-conscious policies because of the new ruling.
"We are going to see a major increase in racial segregation that will cause our children to be less prepared to live in our diverse society," she said.
A case study of how the nation’s schools might respond to the decision can be found in the Washington region, which had to abandon race-conscious policies nearly a decade ago, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down integration plans in Montgomery and Arlington counties. Some local school systems now use income as a race-neutral method to achieve racial diversity, while others do nothing at all, a pattern that experts expect to see repeated across the country.
This week’s 5 to 4 decision, which echoed the 4th circuit’s 1999 ruling, struck down programs in Seattle and Louisville that sought to maintain school-by-school diversity by using race in some cases to assign student to schools. The court’s four-member conservative wing said the use of race in school assignments always violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, while the four-member liberal wing declared it acceptable in the two plans evaluated.
So school administrators and attorneys across the nation spent yesterday analyzing the complicated decision by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who cast the court’s decisive vote to throw out the plan. He wrote that "it is permissible to consider the racial makeup of schools and to adopt general policies to encourage a diverse student body, one aspect of which is its racial composition."
"What the government is not permitted to do," he added, "is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification."
Francisco Negrón, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said it would take a while for school districts to figure out which policies Kennedy might find acceptable. But he expected many to consider using socioeconomic status as a race-neutral method of achieving racial diversity. About 40 school districts follow such policies, including San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass.; La Crosse, Wis.; and Wake County, N.C.
In Wake County, which includes Raleigh, officials created policies aimed at capping the number of low-income students at 40 percent, which has had the effect of maintaining the amount of racial diversity that existed under a previous race-conscious plan, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has studied the school system.
The income-diversity plan has also helped improve academic achievement, boosting test scores for low-income and minority students to higher levels than those of children in surrounding counties that have no such plan.
"These types of plans are not just a cute way of getting racial integration through the back door; they have a powerful educational rational, as well," Kahlenberg said. "And they have the added benefit of being legally bulletproof."
Sharon L. Browne, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that supported the parents suing Seattle and Louisville, said that in addition to the lawsuits her group has filed against Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., that assign students on the basis of race, her foundation may also bring suit against other district with similar policies, such as Lynn, Mass.
But Browne endorsed the Wake County plan as an ideal model for school districts to achieve racial integration without violating the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. "Plans that use socioeconomic factors do not have the pitfalls of using race, which violates the equal protection clause," she said.
The most effective way to achieve racial diversity, however, is by taking race into account, most experts agree, and they fear that the court’s ruling will accelerate the resegregation of American schools that has been going on for decades. The court’s dissenting opinion, for example, noted that the percentage of white students in schools attended by the average black student dropped from 1968 to 2000.
In the Washington region, school districts have responded in markedly different ways to the 4th Circuit’s decision striking down the use of race in school assignments. Some local school districts, such as Fairfax County, have no such plans.
"We draw our boundaries geographically, and we don’t have any sort of desegregation plans, if you will, that will try to bring racial and ethnic equality to our schools," said Mary Shaw, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County schools.
At the same time, Fairfax, like a number of suburban districts across the country, has experienced fairly significant demographic changes that have resulted in a number of non-integrated schools. Hybla Valley Elementary, for example, is 60 percent Hispanic, even though Hispanics make up 16 percent of the district’s students.
Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith said that because of the ruling, some schools got "considerably less diverse for a few years." The county shifted strategies by creating admissions policies based on income, he said, but schools still do not reflect the county’s demographics.
"Right now, I don’t think there is a whole lot you can do," Smith said.
"One of the four major strategic goals that our school board has adopted is to prepare students for a diverse society. I’m not sure how you do that if the student body in which they’re educated is not."
Staff writers Ian Shapira and Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.