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Massachusetts Schools May Feel Impact of Supreme Court Ruling


The Supreme Court ruling Thursday that prohibits schools from considering race when assigning students, except in limited cases, could revive a failed challenge to the city of Lynn’s controversial desegregation plan and imperil similar policies around the state.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling rejected integration plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, though it did not say race could never be used when considering school assignments.

Lynn’s system allows race to be considered when children request transfers to schools outside their neighborhoods. At least 20 school districts statewide have voluntary desegregation plans that consider race, including Brockton, Salem and Worcester.

Attorney Chester Darling, who represented parents who challenged Lynn’s policy as unconstitutional, said he’s prepared to file a request in federal court to immediately end it.

He said Thursday’s ruling opens the door to resurrect his case because though its specifics differ from the Supreme Court cases, it shares the same principle.

“The basic thing is the awarding or withholding of a governmental benefit on the basis of race,” he said. “That was the issue in each of the three cases.”

Nicholas Kostan, superintendent of schools in Lynn, said it appears to him the city will have to abandon the 20-year-old policy, which he said has worked to promote good relations between races.

“I’m disappointed because the people of the city have supported the plan,” he said.

But Richard Cole, who handled the Lynn case for the state attorney general’s office, said Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion made it unlikely the ruling would impact Lynn.

Kennedy differed from his conservative colleagues by saying that under narrow exceptions race can be considered when schools devise diversity plans. One exception allows race as the only consideration if it can be proven there was no alternative and there is a crucial need for the plan.

Cole, now a civil rights consultant, said that applies to Lynn, where he said the policy was proven to be the only way to desegregate the schools and relieve racial tensions that were affecting learning.

“I believe that what we did in the Lynn case … would meet Justice Kennedy’s high threshold for using race as the sole factor in a student assignment plan,” he said.

Justice Kennedy’s opinion also means the state’s school districts don’t necessarily have to kill existing, race-conscious desegregation plans, but can revise them to fit the exceptions he outlined, according to Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree.

“The court has not prevented consideration of such plans, but required school districts to come up with more creative ways of addressing that,” Ogletree said. “That is a refreshing conclusion to be drawn from an otherwise disappointing decision.”

Department of Education Commissioner David Driscoll and Attorney General Martha Coakley said they would determine which desegregation programs were affected by the ruling and work with local officials to make any changes.

“We are committed to guaranteeing equal educational opportunities for all children, and we will do everything within our power to make certain that continues,” Driscoll said in a statement.

State congressional leaders found little to like about the ruling. In a statement, Sen. Edward Kennedy said the decision ran counter to the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools.

“Today’s decision is false to Brown’s promise of equality, making it far more difficult for local school boards to voluntarily bring students of different races together in the classroom,” he said.

John Kerry called it “a terrible blow to civil rights in our country.”

The Lynn case appeared dead in 2006 after the Supreme Court refused to reconsider its rejection of the plaintiff’s appeal in 2005. A federal district and appeals court had ruled the Lynn policies were legal, and that the city had a compelling educational interest in influencing the racial composition of its schools.

Justice Samuel Alito has replaced Justice Sandra Day O’Connor since the high court’s initial ruling in 2005.

Darling said the decision Thursday was good for all students.

“We don’t need Big Brother telling us diversity is good and you have to sit here and you have to sit there because you’re black or white,” he said.

–Associated Press

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