Supreme Court Hears School Integration Arguments
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a pair of cases that may determine the future of race-based desegregation policies in public schools. At issue in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, was the constitutionality of policies that consider race to encourage diversity in the classroom.
"There's a terrible problem in the country, and the problem is that there are lots and lots of school districts in the country that are becoming more and more segregated," said Justice Stephen Breyer, during the hearing.
Segregation in public schools was struck down by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, but the schools were not instantly integrated. The courts soon required districts to take proactive measures, including busing students out of their often homogenous neighborhoods to more distant schools.
In 1975, a federal court ruled that the Jefferson County schools in Louisville intentionally had maintained racially segregated schools, ordering the district to correct the situation. In 2000, Jefferson County was released from its obligation to desegregate the schools but continued to do so under a voluntary program endorsed by the school board. These guidelines say that a school should have a student body that is between 15 and 50 percent African-American.
In 2002, Crystal Meredith, the mother of a white student who was assigned to a school based, in part, on his race, took the Louisville district to court. In 2000, a group of parents went to court in Seattle to challenge a similar system.
For plaintiffs, the cases both came down to reverse discrimination. On Monday, Ted Gordon, the lawyer representing Meredith, said, "We need to stop color-coding children and shift the focus back to learning."
A recurring issue in the arguments this week was how the courts can mandate that the schools forcibly integrate and then declare that race cannot be used in student selection once some level of integration has been achieved. Justice David Souter asked why districts were allowed to use race to end segregation yet not allowed to use race to maintain diversity. "If those interests are identical, why doesn't it follow that the means for achieving those two interests (using race as a factor) ... are reasonable if they are identical?"
Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to be a critical vote on these cases, but his questioning didn't reveal which side he is likely to take. "Today he indicated that he is holding his fire on this to hear the views of his colleagues," said Michael Madden, an attorney who defended the Seattle district's policy.
You can hear an audio recording of today's oral arguments here.