As the U.S. Supreme Court gears up to hear a school desegregation case brought on by parent groups in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., a group of legal and education scholars filed briefs this week in support of desegregation efforts.
“What is at issue is this country’s promise made 52 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education and how much is left of that promise,” said Theodore M. Shaw, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
More than 600 people 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 show that segregation is unhealthy and unproductive.
The Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments on Dec. 4 involving a case in Seattle, (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1) and in Louisville, Ky., (Meredith v. 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 and have some measure of school choice. These efforts were challenged by parent groups, who 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 federal, district and appellate courts. However, the Supreme Court agreed to review the issue on appeal. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has weighed in against using race in admissions, as have officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing that the school districts’ efforts are “unconstitutional.”
With Justice Sandra Day O Connor’s resignation and Bush’s recent appointments of conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, it is uncertain how the court will rule.
“Everyone’s watching to see what kind of new court this will be. We know we need at least five votes,” Shaw says.
Leading the team of social scientists backing the school districts is Dr. Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
Research by Orfield shows that segregated schools tend to be unequal in many respects: They have higher concentrations of poverty, less opportunity for student to understand each other and lack diverse perspectives. Predominantly minority schools have less qualified teachers who leave more rapidly. They also have many more teachers out of subject areas, less Advanced Placement courses and more instability in enrollment because parents are moving.
Orfield surveyed students in Louisville and Seattle, and says they reported high levels of appreciation for the opportunity to learn and understand each other and work in multiracial communities.
“We’re amazed. People should realize there’s a vast body of scientific evidence supporting desegregation,” Orfield says.
The case has become a lightening rod in part because of rising segregation in the 1990s. Orfield says the increase in segregation is a result of the changing population in the United States and growth of residentially segregated areas, especially for Hispanics.
“There’s been a dismantling of desegregation orders that were successful in the South,” he says.
In Seattle, the 46,000-student district has suspended since 2002 its “racial tiebreaker” policy. Seattle schools have an “open choice” policy that allows students to attend any school. Race was allowed to be used as one criterion for admission when demand outpaced capacity. But when White children were denied admission to Ballard High School in favor of minority students who lived further away, angry parents formed a group called “Parents Involved in Community Schools.” The group argues that considering race is a violation of the Constitution, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the voter-approved Initiative 200, a state law forbidding preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender.
In Louisville, parent Crystal Meredith claims the district’s policy denied her son, Joshua, a transfer to a better school because he is White.
Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Board Association, says the case is about allowing local districts to decide for themselves what’s in the best interests of the students.
“It’s important the court not replace the judgment of local school boards,” he says. “This is not a federally mandated one size fits all.”
In an interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, PICS President Kathleen Brose said, “It’s been years, and I still feel as strongly about the case today as when we first started. If we were truly racist, we would be out of here, living in the White suburbs. What we really want people to understand is that we’re not against diversity, we’re for neighborhood schools.”
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