Justices Limit School Diversity Programs
Thursday, June 28, 2007; 6:43 PM
WASHINGTON -- A half-century after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, sharply divided justices clamped new limits Thursday on local school efforts to make sure children of different races share classrooms.
The court voted 5-4 to strike down school integration plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, a decision that imperiled similar plans that hundreds of cities and counties use voluntarily to integrate their schools.
The ruling does not affect several hundred other public school districts that remain under federal court order to desegregate.
Justices disagreed bluntly with each other in 169 pages of written opinions on whether the decision supports or betrays the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that led to the end of state-sponsored school segregation in the United States.
The 5-4 decision, the 24th such split this term, displayed the new dominance of the court's aggressive conservative majority. The four liberal justices dissented.
Chief Justice John Roberts asserted in his majority opinion that by classifying students by race, the school districts are perpetuating the unequal treatment the Brown decision outlawed. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts said.
Citing Brown to rule against integration was "a cruel irony," responded Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent.
Crucially for school districts seeking guidance, Justice Anthony Kennedy went along with the court's four most conservative members in rejecting the Louisville and Seattle plans but also said race may sometimes be a component of school efforts to achieve diversity.
To the extent that Roberts' opinion could be interpreted to foreclose the use of race in any circumstance, Kennedy said, "I disagree with that reasoning."
"A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."
Kennedy seemed to suggest that race could be a factor in deciding where to build a new school or how to draw school attendance boundaries.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a pointed dissent he read in the courtroom, said those measures have had only limited success in promoting integration.