PICS One Year Later: Reflections on the Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Voluntary Integration Decision
This nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity for all of its children. A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation; an interest that a school district in its discretion and expertise may choose to pursue. . . The decision today should not prevent school districts from continuing the important work of bringing together students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. . .
--Justice Kennedy, from his deciding opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education
One year ago this week, the Supreme Court issued a decision reaffirming the value of racial diversity in our nation's schools, yet limiting the options available to districts interested in ensuring such diversity. The Court's 5-4 ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (referred to here as the Seattle/Louisville decision) came into conflict with a body of mounting social science evidence documenting the benefits of racial diversity and ignored the variety of harms stemming from segregated school environments. For twelve years, the Civil Rights Project has documented patterns of segregation in American schools. This year the Project has dedicated a great deal of time to understanding the immediate impacts of the Seattle/Louisville ruling. We are committed to helping to raise awareness about the academic and social benefits of integrated schools, and conversely, the persistent effects of a segregated and unequal education.
Coincidentally, this week also marks the five-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in the Grutter case, a higher education decision that affirmed the right of universities to use race-conscious admissions policies. Grutter also acknowledged the efforts of hundreds of colleges to recruit and graduate diverse classes of students. Unfortunately, the Seattle/Louisville decision undermined not only this nation's best preparation for succeeding in diverse colleges but also Justice O'Connor's hope that successful K-12 school integration would make college affirmative action unnecessary a quarter century from now. In the Grutter decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that integrated colleges are necessary for training future leaders and for ensuring the health of our American democracy and diverse society.
In a society that is growing ever more racially diverse, preparing students to live and work with people from a range of different backgrounds becomes increasingly urgent. Integrated school environments have been shown to help children adopt multiple perspectives and to avoid making artificial assumptions. These skills are important components of critical thinking processes. Additionally, students of all backgrounds attending diverse schools benefit from enhanced classroom discussion, improved racial and cultural awareness, and higher levels of student persistence. Later in life, students who are products of integrated school settings are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods, develop cross-racial friendships and work in higher-status occupations. Additionally, African-American children who graduate from racially diverse schools are more likely to go to integrated colleges.
Looking beyond the benefits associated with racially diverse learning opportunities, the relentless inequalities accompanying segregated school environments also underscore the urgent need for policies that promote racial integration. Although not true for all schools, segregated schools tend to have fewer highly qualified and experienced teachers, coupled with high rates of administrative and teacher turnover. Teachers wield huge influence over the educational process, making the inexperience and instability of many teachers in segregated minority schools particularly damaging for students. Academic course offerings and the availability of important educational resources – like books and high quality curriculum - tend to be limited in segregated schools. Segregated learning environments also provide inadequate access to social networks which open doors to life opportunities in the form of college access and jobs. For all of these reasons, and for the fact that many schools characterized by racial isolation also contain high percentages of students from low income backgrounds, a large number of segregated schools produce low graduation rates and academic outcomes.
The Supreme Court's rejection of popular voluntary integration plans that decide where students may attend school on the basis of their race or ethnicity outweighed the justices' accompanying acknowledgement of the damaging realities of segregation and the well-documented benefits that flow from racial diversity. In the year since the June 2007 Seattle/Louisville decision, we have seen a disturbing pattern develop among school districts deciding that the easiest and safest response to the ruling is to eliminate existing desegregation plans altogether. School choice without desegregation goals often increases segregation, as the ability of parents and students to fully utilize choice options is closely related to their access to information about educational options (including information in a family's native language), transportation, and material and cultural resources - none of which are equally available to all American families. Furthermore, racial transformation is rapidly changing the demographic landscape of suburban communities and deepening segregation across many metropolitan areas. These trends are working together to create conditions that may lead to unequal schooling opportunities for many American students.
There is, however, hope. The Supreme Court left open several avenues for districts to voluntarily maintain and promote integrated schools. Of course, the Seattle/Louisville decision does not apply to districts remaining under court order, and those districts may continue to operate existing student assignment plans. This fact should prompt court-ordered districts to carefully consider any plans to pursue unitary status, since their ability to maintain diverse schools may be sharply limited if they were to be declared unitary.
Districts not subject to an existing desegregation order are permitted to consider race under the following circumstances: developing new school sites, drawing and adjusting attendance lines, recruiting a diverse group of students and faculty, using special programs to attract a racially integrated student body (i.e. magnet schools), and in tracking and disaggregating enrollment and student performance. Other legally permissible options include: the consolidation of several school districts into one larger, more diverse district; school pairing plans that merge neighboring educational facilities in order to produce more diversity, and renovating and expanding existing school sites to attract greater student body diversity. Finally, after carefully documenting that race-neutral alternatives - like socioeconomic status or language background – by themselves would fail to produce satisfactory integration levels, school districts may consider individual students' race as one of several factors in school assignments plans. These options, used singly or in combination with one another, are still capable of producing student body diversity.
Given the nuanced and somewhat confusing quality of the Court's recommendations, what kind of policy changes have occurred in school districts in the aftermath of the decision? It is difficult at this early stage to understand precisely what kind of impact the decision has had, but we think it has produced a variety of responses from school districts that can be winnowed down into three basic categories: some districts have chosen to use race-neutral alternatives in order to continue implementing voluntary integration, other districts have dropped their desegregation plans altogether, and still other school districts have decided to adopt - or are in the process of adopting - plans that consider race in addition to other factors, including language, disability status, and parent income.
The first set of these categories includes districts that decided to adopt race-neutral alternatives in order to maintain diversity. In a direct response to the Seattle/Louisville decision, several school districts in Iowa decided to replace or supplement the use of race in the student assignment process with a consideration of socioeconomic status (SES). Of the five Iowa districts committed to revising their diversity plans, Des Moines will solely consider the SES of students, while the other school systems will examine some combination of SES, language status, academic skill level and racial/ethnic background in order to preserve integration options. Socioeconomic integration, pioneered nearly a decade ago in places like Wake County, North Carolina and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been the most popular alternative to race-conscious strategies, and generally uses some measure of student poverty to distribute students from different socioeconomic classes more evenly across districts.
Category two, districts deciding to drop their desegregation plan altogether, is comprised mostly of a number of court-ordered school systems who have obtained or are in the process of seeking unitary status in the aftermath of the Seattle/Louisville decision. Examples from this group include Little Rock, Arkansas, Decatur, Georgia, Wichita, Kansas, and Houston County, Alabama. In Arizona, Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) is in the midst of a protracted legal battle concerning the provisions of a post-unitary plan that would continue to affirm the district's commitment to school diversity. The district court involved in the case has just recently ordered the plaintiffs and the School Board to come to a joint agreement on a post-unitary status plan, due in the fall of 2008. Other districts in this category, like the Seattle Public Schools, were not operating under a court-ordered desegregation plan, but have for the moment decided not to pursue voluntary integration in the wake of the Seattle/Louisville decision.
Finally, under the far-reaching shadow cast by the decision, two school districts have taken the lead in crafting creative and finely honed integration policies that conform to the new legal climate. Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), across the bay from San Francisco, California, and Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), a merged metropolitan district including Louisville, Kentucky, have each developed student assignment plans that consider the geography of neighborhood opportunities. BUSD pioneered this practice prior to the Seattle/Louisville decision, and has continued to operate under the plan in the aftermath of the ruling. Consequently, this year Jefferson County school officials developed an assignment plan similar to Berkeley's that recognizes the interaction of geography and race, and recently approved a new diversity plan that will go into effect in 2009. These two plans group children into clusters based on certain neighborhood characteristics – including racial composition and average family income and parent education levels – and assign racially and socioeconomically diverse groups of students to schools based on these factors.
These two districts serve as a reminder that carrying out Justice Kennedy's decree is still possible, even with the current legal restrictions in place. It is with this belief that we mark the one-year anniversary of the Seattle/Louisville decision, as well as the five-year anniversary of the Grutter case, in the hopes that other districts around the country will join together in a unified and comprehensive quest for high quality, integrated schools. Many school districts are already working hard – despite the challenges – to do just that.