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High court to hear key school race cases

Ruling could clarify how far states can go to promote diversity

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau




Supreme Court
Justice and Rights
Public Schools

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a pair of cases that could reignite disputes over race and public education, the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide what role affirmative action should play in assigning students to competitive spots in elementary and secondary schools.

The justices this fall will hear two appeals from Kentucky and Washington state.

A ruling could help clarify when and to what lengths state and local officials can go to promote diversity in K-12 education.

In a landmark case three years ago, the Supreme Court affirmed racial quotas as unconstitutional and offered a limited but powerful endorsement of affirmative action in higher education. The justices agreed race can be used as a one factor in admissions to state-funded colleges, as part of an effort to achieve diversity.

In Seattle, Washington, the state's highest court ruled a school district's student assignment plan that takes the student's race into account as one factor does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Under the plan, begun in 1998, families can send their children to any school in a given district. When there are more applicants than spaces available and when a school is not considered "racially balanced," race is one of several "tiebreakers."

Washington Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers concluded, "In a society such as ours, it is not enough that the 3 Rs are being taught properly, for there are other vital considerations. The children must learn to respect and live with one another in multiracial and multicultural communities, and the earlier they do so the better."

That ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court, which said the school district's use of race passes constitutional muster because it serves a "compelling state interest" and is "narrowly tailored."

The dispute began when parents organized against the plan. They say their children should be given preference to attend schools closest to their homes, and that the school-choice plan has divided communities.

The group, composed primarily of white parents from two neighborhoods, sued in 2001, saying about 200 students were not admitted to the schools of their choice, preventing many from attending facilities nearest to their homes. Several were sent to a campus in south Seattle, which has about a 90-percent minority student body.

Many parents have complained about the varying quality of schools in the city. They also say the assignment plan violates Initiative 200, a voter referendum that prohibits racial discrimination and racial preferences in employment, contracting and public school admissions.

Seattle says its policy does not violate the initiative, since students are not turned away from the district.

A case from Louisville, Kentucky, involved similar circumstances.

In 2001, Jefferson County officials began a program that includes racial guidelines. In allowing the program to continue, U.S. District Court Judge John Heyburn wrote, "Its broad racial guidelines do not constitute a quota. The (school) board avoids the use of race in predominant and unnecessary ways that unduly harm members of a particular racial group. The board also uses other race-neutral means, such as geographic boundaries, special programs and student choice, to achieve racial integration."

The Supreme Court must now decide whether its 2003 rulings on affirmative action and college admissions apply on the K-12 level. Writing for a 5-4 majority that upheld Michigan's law school admissions policy, then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."

But in a companion case, the court also found Michigan's undergraduate school's point-based admissions plan was unconstitutional. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, "Because the university's use of race in its current freshman admissions policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve respondents' (Michigan's) asserted compelling interest in diversity, the admissions policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

That "narrowly tailored" standard could prove key in the two cases under consideration. Neither Rehnquist nor O'Connor remain on the high court, and their respective replacements, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, could affect the outcome.

Attention will also be focused on Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote. In the Michigan cases, he sided with two white students who brought suit, claiming they were passed over in favor of less-qualified black and Hispanic students.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka outlawed racially separate public schools. While ushering in a wave of laws ensuring full integration in public facilities, the Brown ruling also prompted backlash in many communities. Forced busing and an exodus of white students into private schools were part of the fallout in subsequent years.

The cases announced Monday are Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (05-908) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board (05-915).

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