- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

From combined dispatches

The Supreme Court tomorrow will confront the issue of whether race can be used in deciding where students go to school.

In a pair of cases that could affect millions of students nationwide, the high court will consider whether the Constitution’s guarantee of equality allows public schools to use race as a factor in admissions.

The Supreme Court ruling might hinge on the court’s newest member, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who replaced Sandra Day O’Connor in January.

A year ago, Justice O’Connor and her colleagues refused to hear a similar school-diversity challenge from Massachusetts. After Justice Alito’s arrival, however, the court surprised many observers by agreeing to hear the appeals from Louisville, Ky., and Seattle. Federal appeals courts had ruled in favor of both school systems.

The challenges could prove among the most significant K-12 desegregation cases since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that banned racial segregation in public schools.

Civil rights advocates are not optimistic.

The new cases “put on the table, in a very clear way, the question of how far society, how far government, should go in terms of trying to promote diversity in education in America,” said Ellis Cose, the author of a study on affirmative action.

“The core issue of whether the government should be in the business of helping to promote diversity in some way in education is at the heart of all these cases,” he said.

The Bush administration is siding with parents against the school districts, arguing the policies are an unconstitutional, albeit well-meaning, “racial balancing” without a compelling justification.

“A well-intentioned quota is still a quota,” the administration said in a brief submitted on the Kentucky case.

Civil rights advocates said a ruling that bars schools from taking race into account would deal a devastating blow to the promotion of diversity in schools.

If the court issues a sweeping ruling against using race, “we will be witnessing a reversal of historic proportions,” said Ted Shaw, president of the Legal Defense and Educational Foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“Race-neutral” alternatives such as lotteries or socioeconomic sorting often end up segregating school populations again and hurting black students, according to Mr. Shaw’s organization.

About 400 of the nation’s 15,000 school districts are under court orders to desegregate. Hundreds more school districts may voluntarily take race into account, but there are no firm figures on how many do.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said banning the voluntary consideration of race in school assignments could result in an “absurd” situation, in which districts are not allowed to promote the diversity they formerly were under order to achieve.

In one case before the high court, Seattle used race as a tie-breaking factor in deciding who can attend which of the city’s public high schools when too many students seek admission to the same school.

School officials there aim for each school to have about 40 percent white students and 60 percent racial minorities, reflecting the city’s overall racial composition.

In the other case, the Louisville-area school district used racial guidelines to keep black student enrollment at most elementary, middle and high schools at 15 percent to 50 percent to maintain diversity.

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