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Debate On Desegregation Rages as Supreme Court Begins Oral Arguments

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in two school desegregation cases that could drastically affect race-conscious initiatives in schools across the country. The justices are expected to make a decision this spring.

In the last week, scholars have held a series of panels and press conferences touting research into the harmful effects of segregation and urging the justices to side with the school districts in preserving race-conscious initiatives instead of White parents who claim they are discriminatory. 

However, with Sandra Day O Connor’s retirement, and U.S. President George Bush’s recent appointments of conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, it is uncertain how the court will decide.

“In this case the court is considering if there are compelling evidence to show the benefits to racial diversity and if there’s harm in racial isolation,” says Angelo Ancheta, assistant professor of law at the Santa Clara University. “I am confident that they’ll find the evidence compelling.”

The cases involve Seattle (Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No 1.) and Louisville, Ky. (Meredith vs. Jefferson County Public Schools). In both cases, local education officials in urban school districts designed enrollment plans that encouraged racial diversity while still allowing children to attend neighborhood schools or a school of choice. These efforts were challenged by parent groups that filed lawsuits claiming that the consideration of race was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The school districts have won in the federal, district and appellate courts, however, the Supreme Court agreed to review the issue when the parents appealed. Many fear the court took up the cases intentionally to strike down desegregation efforts. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has weighed in against using race in admissions, as have officials from the Department of Justice who argue the school districts’ efforts are “unconstitutional.”

“We think there’s a way to balance diversity and high-quality program offerings other than race-based measures,” Spellings has said.

Over the last few months, more than 600 individuals and organizations signed briefs supporting what the NAACP calls “voluntary integration efforts.” Among those were 553 university social scientists, arguing in a lengthy brief that decades of research shows that segregation is unhealthy and unproductive.

Supporters of desegregation efforts also say that Blacks and Latino college students who attend racially integrated high schools experience higher levels of college retention and success than their peers from segregated schools.

On Friday morning, the American Educational Research Association joined the chorus by holding a panel of scholars in support of desegregation issues.

“Schools are socializing agents that help children become better citizens,” said George Wimberly, director of Social Justice and Professional Development at American Education Research Association. Wimberly said that interracial contact at an early age is best.

“Children as young as six express racial preferences so exposing them helps them overcome prejudices. Kids who went to diverse schools had less discomfort in diverse settings,” Wimberly said.

Thanks to enhanced technology, sociologists have a better handle on what factors affect children’s education. “Research tools allow us to disentangle family background from achievement,” says Rosyln Arlin Mickelson, a professor of sociology and adjunct professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. From that, scholars have been able to show the harmful effects of segregation.

Also on hand was Dr. Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. He noted that the percentage of school-age students who are minority has more than doubled in 20 years, and yet segregation has barely improved and for Hispanics it has worsened. Latinos face a “triple threat” of being segregated by race, class and language.

“Should this decision eventually limit the authority of local school districts to desegregated, we’re likely to experience even deeper levels of segregation,” Orfield said.

Over the last decade, Black-White residential segregation has declined, but Latinos are more segregated. Scholars said they had research showing that large districts that dropped race-conscious assignment have experienced major re-segregation.

According to Orfield, segregated schools tend to be unequal in many respects: they have higher concentrations of poverty, lack diverse perspectives, have inexperienced teachers, fewer Advanced Placement courses, and “lots more instability in enrollment because parents are moving.”

Furthermore, Orfield’s survey of students in Louisville and Seattle found that they have high levels of appreciation for the opportunity to learn in multi-racial communities.

-Christina Asquith


Reader comments on this story:

There is currently 1 reader comment on this story:

“morally unacceptable”
To assign students to schools based on their race is morally unacceptable; this is 2006 and we continue to have these small minded parents and officials believing what is best for our youth – they are the future, and can’t be limited to mingling with just our race.  When you have a diverse atmosphere the learning escalates but in a controlled limited environment you will have limited progress.

-Linda Parker

Fayetteville, NC

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