Fight over school segregation intensifies

In June, in a ruling that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said was an assault on “any and all efforts to address racial inequality,” the Supreme Court found race-based school assignment plans implemented in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle unconstitutional. Four justices concurred with Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion that these voluntary school plans did not use race in a “narrowly-tailored” approach and that race-conscious programs are unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roberts concluded that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

“It is the ‘just say no to racism’ solution,” says Aderson Francois, a professor and director of the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic who filed an amicus brief on the case. He says the comment is an “extraordinary injustice” given the realities of this country’s history with race. “[Roberts’] comment suggests that the solution to the color line has been staring us in the face all this time.”

Indeed, Kentucky and Washington were among the less segregated states for black students, according to a study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project (now The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles), indicating that they were doing something right. The report found that public schools nationwide are increasingly segregated, with New York, Illinois, and Michigan ranking among the highest for the percentage of black students attending 90% to 100% minority schools (See “Progress Undone,” Facts & Figures, August 2006).

“I got into the case on behalf of African American students,” says lawyer Ted Gordon, referring to a group of black parents who felt it unfair that school board integration plans kept their children from attending a local magnet school. He asserts that under the voluntary integration plans in Louisville, institutional racism was at its worst and that the Louisville school district often enrolled black students in low-performing white schools.

“Diversity in the classroom is a worthy goal, but not to the sacrifice of educational outcome,” opines Gordon, maintaining that racially isolated black schools can achieve the same success as white schools if resources are distributed equally, class sizes are reduced, and teacher income is increased.

“I’m not saying that an all-black school is inherently an inferior school,” says Ted Shaw, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “That would be culturally insulting. In the context of segregated public schools in this country, our experience, almost without exception, is that segregation has always been a prelude to other forms of deprivation, educational and otherwise, for black [people].

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion provided a silver lining when he offered that race could be used as “one component” to school assignment, but not the sole criterion. Kennedy also agreed with the four dissenting justices that overcoming racial isolation is a “compelling state interest,” leaving the argument open for future cases that may arise.

Experts point to other components that can be used to assign kids to school including athletic and intellectual giftedness, as well as socioeconomic status, or SES. SES was successfully used