ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Protect Diversity in Public Schools

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

Update: The U.S. Supreme Court decided 5-4 on June 28 to reject school assignment plans that consider a student's race as one of many factors. A majority of the Court, however, recognized that school districts do have a compelling interest in racially diverse public schools. The ACLU will continue to pursue efforts to bring fairness and equality to schools.

December 4, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases today – including one from Seattle – involving desegregation programs in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the cases, urging the court to uphold school policies intended to promote racial diversity.

The cases arise from challenges to student assignment plans in public schools in Seattle (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District) and Louisville, Kentucky (Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education). While the school districts differ in the details of their student assignment plans, school officials in both cities determined that there were important educational reasons to maintain a racially diverse student body. To avoid segregation, school officials may consider race as a factor, among many other factors, when assigning students to a particular school to ensure integration throughout the district as a whole.

“The Seattle School District’s limited use of race in assigning students to high schools is a valid and effective response to the racial isolation that results from Seattle's housing patterns,” said Paul Lawrence, an ACLU cooperating attorney with the firm of Preston Gates & Ellis, LLP who has drafted ACLU briefs in support of the district’s plan. “As a result, Seattle school students can obtain educational benefits that result from an enhanced exchange of ideas, and the socialization benefits that will help students work and live together as adults. A student's diverse experience now will make better citizens later.”

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public universities have a compelling interest in a racially diverse student body that permits them to use race as a factor in their admissions program, and that race-conscious programs must be narrowly defined to avoid quotas or mathematic formulas. In October 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld Seattle’s admissions plan for public high schools, finding that it meets the Supreme Court’s criteria.

Although Seattle has never been under court order to desegregate its schools, its efforts go back decades. Beginning in the 1960s, Seattle tried to correct the racial imbalance in schools that resulted from stark patterns of residential segregation. After trying a series of approaches and considering a range of alternatives, Seattle adopted a plan for the 1998-1999 school year in which students would be allowed to choose between schools. Admission to over-subscribed schools would be determined by four “tie-breakers,” one of which considered race and would come into play only if the over-subscribed school were racially imbalanced. This attempt to undertake voluntary integration measures resulted in the current challenge to the program.

Seattle weighed race in admissions decisions only when a high school received more student applicants than it could accommodate. The school considered three factors to give preference to students: 1) whether the student had a sibling in the school; 2) student proximity to the school; and 3) whether the student’s race helped balance the racial makeup of the school. This system allowed students from minority neighborhoods to attend popular schools in majority areas, and vice versa.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU responds to the argument that racial diversity can be achieved solely through race-neutral measures, such as assigning students to schools based on socioeconomic factors. Through a review of the federal government’s own data, the ACLU concludes that neither magnet schools nor socioeconomic criteria have proved sufficient, by themselves, to address the re-segregation that plagues so many school districts across the country.