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Achieving K-12 School Diversity Without Considering Race

Achieving K-12 School Diversity Without Considering Race

By Eboni S. Nelson

Over the next few months, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of race-conscious K-12 student assignment plans. In their attempts to combat de facto segregation and to create and maintain racially diverse learning environments, the school districts in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education utilized racial tiebreakers and guidelines in their student assignment decisions. 

The cases are not likely to pass constitutional muster, but there are steps that school districts can take to ensure a diverse student body.
By way of background, Seattle school officials considered students’ race to determine their admission into oversubscribed high schools. If a student’s race furthered the school board’s goals of creating a 40 percent non-minority student population, then the student was automatically admitted. Conversely, the student would be denied admission using the same criterion if his or her race did not further the school board’s diversity goals.

In Meredith, Kentucky school officials sought to have an African-American student population of at least 15 percent and no more than 50 percent in their elementary and secondary schools. In furtherance of this goal, school officials granted and denied admission to students based, in part, on their race. Although the 6th and 9th Circuit Courts found the school districts’ use of race to be constitutionally permissible, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will reach a similar conclusion.

To pass constitutional scrutiny, race-conscious student assignment plans must serve compelling, narrowly tailored interests. Similar to the diversity rationale sanctioned in the higher education context, achieving the educational and societal benefits associated with diverse student bodies should serve a compelling interest in the elementary and secondary school context. Considering the pivotal role of public elementary and secondary education in transmitting societal values, and also considering the number of students who do not go on to attend college, the benefits derived from promoting discussion and socialization between races and fostering cultural understanding are arguably more compelling in elementary and secondary schools than in higher education. Despite the importance of these benefits, the school districts’ consideration of race must be narrowly tailored to survive an Equal Protection challenge.

When assessing the constitutionality of the use of race in higher education, the Supreme Court in 2003 held that race-conscious admissions procedures must afford individualized consideration to each applicant. The plans must be flexible enough to consider various elements of diversity and to ensure that race is not the decisive factor in the admissions decision. Unfortunately, this will likely prove to be an insurmountable challenge for the plans, thereby resulting in their invalidation by the Supreme Court. In light of this probable outcome, school officials should immediately develop policies that effectively address the harmful effects of resegregation in public education.

To assist them in their efforts, school officials should refrain from using their “neighborhood school concept” when making student assignment decisions. Because our neighborhoods are often racially and economically segregated, adherence to this concept often produces racially and economically segregated schools. Unfortunately, many students who attend such schools face tremendous — and often insurmountable — challenges ranging from less qualified teachers to fewer resources. To further their diversity and educational goals, schools should base student assignment decisions on factors such as students’ socioeconomic status and performance on standardized tests. Limiting the concentrations of lower performing and socioeconomically disadvantaged students will both diversify the schools and create an educational environment in which minority students are more likely to achieve. 

Students’ opportunities to succeed academically will continue to be greatly hindered unless school officials address the glaring disparities in teacher quality at high-poverty, predominantly minority schools. Currently, novice teachers and those who do not have a degree or certification in their subject area are twice as likely to be assigned to impoverished and minority-concentrated schools. School officials should implement financial incentives such as higher salaries, bonuses and early retirement to attract more highly qualified teachers to lower performing schools. Schools should also implement initiatives — such as pre-service teacher education, mentoring programs and continual professional development — to improve teacher qualifications
and effectiveness. 

Whether the Supreme Court permits the use of race in elementary and secondary education assignments, our schools and our country have a moral responsibility to ensure that all students have the opportunity to interact with peers from diverse backgrounds.

— Eboni S. Nelson is an assistant professor at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University.

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