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Parents Nervous as Supreme Court Ruling Puts School Districts and Plaintiffs at Odds About Future School Assignments

For Jessica Vautard, attending classes with students from a variety of backgrounds is a treat that can’t be duplicated.

“The diversity we have right now is so major,” said Vautard, a 17-year-old senior at Louisville’s DuPont Manual High School. “It’s such a big part of our lives.”

Now she’s afraid diversity in schools is something that will end after the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 Thursday to reject the use of race in student assignments in cases out of Louisville and Seattle. The case now goes back to U.S. District Judge John Heyburn, who will decide the legality of any new system put in place and possibly when a new system will go into place.

Those decisions have sparked a dispute between the parents who sued to overturn the system and the school system and has parents nervous about what it could mean for their kids with the start of school about seven weeks away.

Jefferson County Public Schools downplayed any immediate effect, saying the district will not change its current assignment plan for the coming year. School assignments have been issued and will be kept in place, said Pat Todd, the district’s executive director for student assignment.

“Parents and students need not worry about any disruption to the educational process,” Todd said.

But attorney Teddy Gordon, who represents the parents that successfully challenged the plan, said if the current assignment plan is left in place, he’ll ask a federal judge to hold the board in contempt of court for violating the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“They’ve had an intractable position the entire time,” Gordon said of the board. “They’ve not listened throughout this process.”

Paula Wolf, head of the Jefferson County PTA, said parents are nervous about what the ruling will mean for their children.

Vautard’s mother, Janet Vautard, hopes whatever comes into place doesn’t turn back the clock to the 1970s, when schools were segregated and violence erupted when a federal court ordered student busing to integrate the schools.

“It was not a pretty sight around here. People didn’t take to it well,” Janet Vautard said. “The system they have in place now … it has really worked so well. People in general seem to be very accepting of it.”

Meanwhile legal experts said it will be up to local officials in hundreds of districts across the country to decide when and how to implement the ruling.

Tom Hutton, a senior staff attorney with the National School Board Association, said the ruling was disappointing.

“School boards were prepared for bad news. The question was how bad is it going to be,” Hutton said. “There will be some future cases that will apply these rulings. We’ll have to see how that puts flesh to the bones.”

Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., which opposed using race in student assignments, said the ruling will prove good for schools.

“There can’t be a dual system of school assignments based on race or ethnicity,” Blum said. “Racial quotas and preferences never produce diversity they produce animosity, bitterness and perpetuate the belief that minority students just can’t hack it.”

Aderson Francois, with Howard University Law School’s Civil Rights Clinic, said a concurring opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy left the door open for the limited consideration of race to achieve diversity in schools. Kennedy suggested that districts can draw attendance zones, strategically locate new schools and recruit students and teachers in a targeted fashion.

“Most school districts are probably going to find a way to devise a system that is used in higher education. You take race into account, but you don’t just take race. You take a whole host of things into account,” Francois said.

The Louisville school district, the 26th largest in the United States, adopted its current plan in 2000, after a federal judge said the district had eliminated the vestiges of past discrimination after 25 years of court-ordered busing.

The school district, which gets a new superintendent in July, is 56 percent white, 37 percent black and about 8 percent other minorities. The current plan allows some student choice while seeking to keep minority enrollment at between 15 percent and 50 percent of the population at most schools.

Louisville parent Crystal Meredith challenged the system, which was upheld by a federal judge in Louisville and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Meredith said her son was bused 90 minutes round trip for two years, until she moved and her son got into his school of choice.

Meredith, a single mom who wanted her son at a school closer to home to facilitate visitation with his father, said the plan violated her rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“I was told by the school board that my son’s education was not as important as their plan,” Meredith said Thursday. “I was told that my best bet for a better educational fit for him was to move to another county.”

–Associated Press

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