July 3, 2007
The Court voted 5-4, in a bitterly divided dispute, to restrict the tools school leaders use to assure racial balance. It has been a sharp new blow to moderates, liberals and socially conscious conservatives.
Duval County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Wise "was not surprised and not encouraged by the opinion. Any time the Supreme Court takes away tools used by school districts to promote equality, it cannot be a good thing. In Duval, we are positioned a little better than some other school districts, since we are oriented more toward socio-economic disadvantage than a racial focus." Brenda Priestly-Jackson, an African-American attorney and Jacksonville School Board member, said "we have turned the Brown decision on its head. Our greatest strength is diversity and we have taken one of the most important tools away."
Integrated education has opened possibilities to many students of all races. Now, school leaders, teachers, parents and students will all be affected by the court's recent decision that Jefferson County School District, in metropolitan Louisville, KY, and the Seattle, WA, Public Schools failed to meet what Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. called a "heavy burden" of justifying "the extreme means they have chosen -- discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments."
President George W. Bush's nominees Roberts and Samuel A. Alito, Jr. were joined by Reagan nominees Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy and the court's only African American, George H.W. Bush's nominee Clarence Thomas, in the decision.
Kennedy did write a separate opinion indicating the court "did not completely rule out race as one factor in assigning students to different schools." Although Kennedy supported the outcome that the two programs were ruled unconstitutional, he protested the majority's "all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account." Wise thought Kennedy's clarification was the only bright spot in the decision.
Ironically, the new opinion used the historic 1954 "Brown v. Board of Education" decision as a basis for the ruling. Brown's prohibition of segregation in public schools was turned on its head in a rewriting of history by the new court. In essence, they came up with confusing logic that affirmative action needs to be eliminated in the name of "racial balance."
Prior to the efforts for balance, one could determine student populations in both Jefferson and Seattle by looking at data and immediately refer to a school as black or white. These plans had been adopted in both communities in response to earlier court rulings that their schools were racially segregated. The two programs were designed to maintain school-by-school diversity by using race as a "tiebreaker" for entrance to certain schools or limiting transfers on the basis of race. Both programs had been upheld by other federal courts and were similar to plans in place in hundreds of school districts around the country, including Florida.
Roberts said "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." In an amazing statement, Roberts actually claimed he and his colleagues were being "more faithful to the heritage of Brown."
There is no doubt the court has taken a massive step backwards in racial balance and educational equality. At a time when we have massive flight by families from inner city to suburban schools, now school leaders are thwarted in efforts to keep urban school districts balanced.
A review of history proves that segregating students does not ensure equality for students with the fewest resources. Since more black students live in homes with poorly educated parents than whites and more black children live in poverty the schools are often their best springboard to financial and educational success.
In many urban areas, this decision could unravel years of successful community relations among different races. It could lead to more segregated lives, with segregated schools and segregated adult relationships.
Major corporations are spending millions on diversity programs largely to cure the ills of segregated populations of young people.
Much like exchange students from across the world bonding with each other in their experiences, students of different races in our communities interacting on a daily basis could have a meaningful impact on the vitality of our cities.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a Clinton nominee, emotionally delivered the principal dissenting opinion saying the "court was taking a sharp and seriously mistaken turn. "It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much".
Breyer wrote the decision was "a radical step" away from settled law. He said it "would strip local communities of the tools they need, and have used for many years, to prevent resegregation of their public schools. This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret." Justice John Paul Stevens, a Ford nominee, wrote, "cruel irony," the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively declared the end of using race to integrate racially segregated schools."
Since the new majority will likely control the court for years, school leaders will need to use great sensitivity and creativity in continuing efforts to provide equality and equal educational opportunity.
It is unfortunate that Breyer and Stevens were right. This decision was a serious mistake.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data