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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Race and Education: Who Benefits, Who Does Not?


Schools seek new diversity answers after court rejects race as tiebreaker
Friday, June 29, 2007Last updated 7:31 a.m. PT


More magnet schools. More money to underperforming schools or ones that are largely segregated. Weighing whether a student comes from a poor or wealthy family.
These will likely be among the next batch of solutions the Seattle School District turns to as it attempts to foster diversity and create equally strong schools citywide.

With the racial tiebreaker portion of its school assignment plan shot down Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, Seattle district officials vowed to find another way to promote diversity in a city where schools and neighborhoods are still fairly segregated.

Wary of a potential court ruling against it, the Seattle School District has not been using the racial tiebreaker system.

"We have had a racially neutral student assignment system for the past five years, and our fears of having schools become more segregated have become fulfilled," said Gary Ikeda, the district's general counsel.

Dan DeLong / P-I

Kathleen Brose, a Seattle parent and president of Parents Involved in Community Schools, is overcome with emotion during a news conference about the Supreme Court's decision that rejected diversity plans that take account of students' race for assignments in Seattle's public schools. Brose's daughter was assigned to high school based on her race and she leads the parents group that has challenged the Seattle School District's policies for six years. On right is Harry Korrell, who represents Parents Involved in Community Schools and argued the Seattle parents' case before the United States Supreme Court.

The high court's 5-4 decision, which struck down racial aspects of student assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., brought to a close the lengthy legal battle that has been called the most crucial public education case since the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

Because the Seattle district has not used the racial tiebreaker since 2001 and next year's school assignments have already been set, the ruling won't have an immediate impact here.

It could, however, jeopardize similar voluntary desegregation plans in hundreds of districts nationwide. And it will force the Seattle district to come up with alternative methods to encourage racial diversity as it revamps its student assignment plan this summer.

To do so, however, the district will have to rethink and likely expand its idea of diversity. Perhaps when determining school assignments, the district could instead consider a student's economic background, or whether they're a recent immigrant or a special-needs student, for example.

"This ruling leaves us open to pursue diverse schools as a goal," said School Board member Michael DeBell. "And we'll be looking to define diversity more broadly."

How that goal is achieved, however, makes a difference. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that classifying students by race only perpetuated the unequal treatment that the Brown ruling sought to extinguish.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts wrote.

The ruling applies to school districts that aren't under a court order to remove the vestiges of past discrimination.

Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court's four most conservative members in rejecting the Louisville and Seattle plans, but in a concurring opinion suggested race may be used as part of a district's broader plan to diversify schools.

Justice Stephen Breyer and the three more liberal members of the court strongly disagreed. In a sharp dissent, Breyer wrote that the ruling would "threaten the promise" of Brown and warned, "this is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret."

Federal appeals courts had upheld the Seattle and Louisville plans after some parents sued. The Bush administration took the parents' side, arguing that racial diversity is a noble goal but can be sought only through race-neutral means.

The tiebreaker was part of a School Board decision in 1997 to allow the district's 46,000 students to attend a school of their choice. That assignment plan was intended to replace the district's widely unpopular mandatory busing program and return to a neighborhood schools assignment plan, so students could attend school closer to home.

School officials considered a student's race as one of several tiebreakers at popular schools; their race was a factor if the student's attendance would help bring the high school closer to the districtwide average of about 40 percent white students. The tiebreaker helped some minority students get into predominately white high schools, and vice versa.

A student with a sibling at a school got first priority; a student's race was the second tiebreaker, followed by the distance a student lived from the school.

But the plan had critics, including those parents whose students were denied seats at the high school of their choice based on their race. They formed Parents Involved in Community Schools and sued the district in 2000, claiming the racial tiebreaker policy was unfair and violated students' civil rights.

Kathleen Brose, the group's president, fought back tears Thursday as she discussed her victory.
"It's been seven years. A lot of people have moved on, but I don't want another parent to go through what I did -- what we did," she said at a news conference.

Her daughter Elisabeth, now 22, wanted to attend Ballard High School, the closest high school to their Magnolia home. But she wasn't able to get a seat there, nor at her second or third choices. She finally ended up at Ingraham High, and later transferred to The Center School when it opened at the Seattle Center. The move was upsetting to the girl, who missed attending high school with her middle school friends, Brose said.

The school district's policy also affected students of color, said Seattle attorney Harry Korrell, who represented the parents. Some who wanted to attend Franklin High, their neighborhood school, were turned away because the district gave those seats to white students in an attempt to balance the school's racial mix.

This report includes information from The Associated Press. P-I reporter Jessica Blanchard can be reached at 206-448-8322 or
© 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


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