The Public Schools and the Challenge of the Supreme Court's Integration Decision; the High Court's Complex Decision in the Seattle and Louisville Desegregation Cases Limited the Means School Officials Can Use to Seek Diversity, but, the Authors Argue, We Should Not Lose Sight of the Goal

By Wells, Amy Stuart; Frankenberg, Erica | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2007 | Go to article overview

The Public Schools and the Challenge of the Supreme Court's Integration Decision; the High Court's Complex Decision in the Seattle and Louisville Desegregation Cases Limited the Means School Officials Can Use to Seek Diversity, but, the Authors Argue, We Should Not Lose Sight of the Goal


Wells, Amy Stuart, Frankenberg, Erica, Phi Delta Kappan


THIS PAST June, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court declared integration plans in Louisville and Seattle unconstitutional because of their focus on race as one factor in assigning students to schools. The Court's ruling in the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. (1) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education cases, therefore, significantly narrowed the options local officials have to create and maintain racially diverse school enrollments and stabilize their districts by making all schools more equal.

The legal issue in these cases was whether or not school officials in districts that are no longer (or never were) under a court order to remedy state-sanctioned or de jure racial segregation can use voluntary efforts to stave off the racial segregation that would occur if all their students simply went to their neighborhood schools. Both of the districts involved--the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville and the Seattle Public Schools--had, over time, adjusted their original school desegregation plans from mandatory reassignment of students based on race--e.g., "busing"-- to programs allowing students and parents to choose among racially diverse schools. Under the choice-oriented programs in these two districts, more than 90% of all students were assigned to their first-or secondchoice schools.1 Furthermore, these school choice programs were designed by locally elected officials who are accountable to their constituents, most of whom strongly supported the plans. (2)

Hundreds of school districts across the country have adopted some variation of these plans because such voluntary integration achieves two goals. First, it provides families with choice, and second, it ensures that schools remain fairly balanced in terms of race, resources, reputation, and political clout. This balance prevents instability and the white and middle-class flight that often follows.

Despite the obvious benefits of these plans, five of the nine Supreme Court justices declared them unconstitutional, stating that districts cannot take individual students' race into account when assigning them to schools unless the program is specifically designed to remedy the harms of de jure or Jim Crow segregation. The Court ruled that such "racial classifications" violated the white plaintiffs' 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law because they did not get their first-choice schools if white enrollment in these schools was already too high. At the same time, four of these five justices implied that race does not relate to opportunities in our contemporary society and thus the use of race-conscious policies--to achieve segregation or integration--is forbidden. In fact, according to Justice Clarence Thomas, any ongoing racial segregation in this country is the result of "innocent private decisions" and not racial inequality or discrimination. Student assignment policies, according to four members of the Court, must be colorblind.

And yet, the Court's ruling was even more complicated. Five justices--the four dissenting justices plus one member of the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy--agreed that the two school districts did indeed have a "compelling state interest" in trying to achieve racial integration, in part because of the legacies of past discrimination. In other words, five justices concluded that the end--integration of public schools in order to overcome the history of racial inequality--was justified. But another five justices concluded that the most effective means for accomplishing that end, namely policies that pay attention to students' racial classifications and each school's demographics, were not.

Justice Kennedy's swing opinion cited several alternative measures that Louisville, Seattle, and other districts could use to achieve the goal of racial integration, including locating new schools between racially distinct neighborhoods, redrawing school attendance zones, and targeting recruitment of students for particular schools. …

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