Supreme Court to Review Two School-Integration Plans

Audreyanna Colby, 14, left, and sister Cassandra, 16, discuss school choice while watching a football game in Louisville. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Louisville and Seattle lawsuits challenging policies that use race to help determine to which schools children go.
Audreyanna Colby, 14, left, and sister Cassandra, 16, discuss school choice while watching a football game in Louisville. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Louisville and Seattle lawsuits challenging policies that use race to help determine to which schools children go. (By Brian Bohannon -- AP)

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Louisville Mayor Jerry E. Abramson is not sure whether it qualifies as irony or not.

For 25 years, his home town was under federal court order to integrate its public schools. Now that the painful and bitter chapter is closed, and the school board has come up with its own plan to make sure the schools remain racially diverse, Louisville could find itself under federal court order to stop.

"You just sort of scratch your head when you think about that," Abramson said.

More than 50 years after the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools are inherently unequal, the court will consider tomorrow whether race can still be a factor when school systems design programs to promote racial integration. A broadly written decision on Louisville's plan, and on a related one from Seattle, could have a profound impact on school systems across the country.

It is the first time in more than a decade that the Supreme Court will consider what is proper for school systems to do to promote desegregation, and it is the first test on the issue for two new justices who in the past have been skeptical about the use of racial classifications.

Both sides have circled Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s dissenting opinion in a voting rights case decided in the last term that "it is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race."

Because of the high stakes perceived by both sides of the argument, the cases have produced a blizzard of studies and conflicting legal briefs.

More than 50 groups and organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the Louisville and Seattle school systems, which use race as one factor in assigning students under their school-choice plans. The small harm done to a few students who do not get their first choice of schools, Louisville argued in its brief, is outweighed by the value of an integrated school system that "significantly advances the goal of teaching students how to participate in a democracy that has formed a single society out of many diverse people."

Among the school systems' eclectic band of supporters: The American Psychological Association, a coalition of historians, the NCAA and a group of former professional basketball players, and 10 former high-ranking Defense Department officials.

On the other side, the Bush administration and a number of conservative legal organizations have joined the white parents in the two cities who brought the suits. Children were denied entrance to the schools of their choice, at least initially, for no reason other than the color of their skin, they say.

"School districts have an unquestioned interest in reducing minority isolation through race-neutral means," Solicitor General Paul D. Clement said in his brief to the court. "But the solution to addressing racial imbalance in communities or student bodies is not to adopt race-conscious measures."

It is unclear how many school systems across the country use race as a determining factor, or a "tiebreaker," in school assignments or how many use racial and ethnic breakdowns to help fashion school boundaries that foster integrated schools. Some have already altered their plans because of lower-court decisions.


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