Story Highlights• Supreme Court expected to rule on cases involving schools and affirmative action
• Cases originate in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington
• Issue is how to balance choice of schools with diversity goals
• New conservatives on court could cast deciding votes
By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Their daily journeys take them in opposite directions. Seth Dewboys, 7, and Howard Brim, 16, gladly pay the price for a good education.
"We just are going to make sacrifices that we want for Seth," said his mother, Lori Dewboys.
That sacrifice means up to three hours a day on a bus.
Seth Dewboys travels west from a mostly white Louisville, Kentucky, neighborhood to an inner-city school with high test scores and a racially mixed student body.
Howard Brim takes public transportation east from the city's predominantly African-American West End to a suburban high school that has an equally strong academic and athletic program.
Brim's mother was not available for an interview. But the teen spoke for himself. "I think a lot of people are afraid to change," he said. "The fact is, today you need to learn how to change and go with the flow, and adapt with the times now."
The boys, one black, one white, have become the faces of a bitterly fought legal battle. The dispute is not over what they learn, but where.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on what role, if any, affirmative action should play in determining which students get competitive spots in elementary and secondary schools.
The Kentucky case and another in Washington state have been debated internally by the justices since early December.
The issue revisits past disputes over race and education, stemming from the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board decision ending segregation in public facilities
People on both sides of the issue agree that classroom diversity is an important goal. What divides them is how to maintain it without the real or perceived consequence that some families may be unfairly discriminated against or unduly inconvenienced.
It has become a battleground in the culture wars roiling in the nation's courtrooms.
"Nobody is really in favor any more of all-white public schools," said Thomas Goldstein, a leading Washington appellate attorney and Supreme Court legal analyst. "On the other hand, even if you favor diversity, you're really concerned about your child being on a bus for an hour and a half each way."
The high court's 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 justices affirmed racial quotas are unconstitutional, and offered a limited, though powerful endorsement of affirmative action in higher education.
Long road to equality
The long, daily treks of Seth Dewboys and Howard Brim resemble Louisville's long journey toward equality.
Public schools in Jefferson County were once segregated by law. Efforts to end the practice in the 1960s and 1970s were controversial and occasionally violent. Change came slowly to a state trying to overcome embedded social and political pressures.
The year 1975 marked the beginning of what became a quarter-century of federal court oversight in Jefferson County, including forced busing. Black students were pelted with rocks and bottles on their first day of school.
When court oversight ended in the late 1990s, county officials came up with a plan requiring that African-American enrollment in most public schools be between 15 percent and 50 percent. The goal: to reflect the whole of Jefferson County, which is 60 percent white and 38 percent black.
Officials say the plan reflects not only the need for diversity, but also the desire of parents for greater school choice.
Magnet schools -- some emphasizing art or science -- are popular in most districts around the country, but intense competition for spots means many students are denied the school of their choice.
A white parent, Crystal Meredith, sued, saying her child was twice denied entrance to the school nearest their home and instead had to endure a three-hour daily bus ride to a school that was not their top choice.
No bus service was initially available to the distant location, so she had to drive her then-kindergarten-age son back and forth to school, she said.
Quality vs. equality?
Meredith's lawyer, Teddy Gordon, told the Supreme Court that the bottom line should be educational quality across the board, not what he called "artificial" attempts at imposing racial harmony.
The fact that some children, white or black, are denied entrance to better-ranked neighborhood schools solely because of their race is nothing more than discrimination, he said.
Much of Louisville and its suburbs remains racially divided. Deborah Stallworth's son, who is African-American,attends nearby Central High School in a historically black neighborhood, at her insistence.
Stallworth was one of the original parents who sued the school system, which has about 100,000 students.
"What I like to see happen is that children go to their neighborhood school, and then after that, with choice, bus them to the best schools, the middle, the best high school, until you run out of room, then filter down to there," Stallworth told CNN.
"I'm asking for fairness here."
Three years ago, the Supreme Court agreed that race can be used as a factor in admissions to state-funded colleges, as part of an overall effort to achieve diversity in the classroom.
The issues now before the high court will not turn on public school efforts to achieve racial balance, but the discretion officials should be given to maintain it.
The sticking point could be whether those efforts represent a "compelling government interest."
The high court's new conservative makeup, with Chief Justice John Roberts in charge, could make the difference. If the arguments are any indication, the chief justice may have the votes to strike down all or parts of both Seattle's and Louisville's school choice plans.
The key swing vote, as has been true in every contentious case heard this term, will likely be Justice Anthony Kennedy.
While he expressed sympathy during arguments for schools seeking to end minority isolation, Kennedy was skeptical of the two plans in question, telling a Seattle lawyer that the high court in 2003 concluded "outright racial balancing" was "patently unconstitutional."
He added, "Isn't that what you have here?... You are choosing each student by the color of their skin."
Howard Brim, 16, spends up to three hours a day getting to school and back.