Supreme Court Update 2: Race in Public Schools

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The Supreme Court heard opening arguments today in a case that will determine the fate of diversity programs in public schools. The policies of two school districts, in Seattle and Louisville, are under attack by parent groups who want to end the use of race as a factor in making public school assignments.

Not surprisingly, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Roberts were the most skeptical of the districts’ position in today’s hearing, with Kennedy and Scalia favoring food metaphors to get their points across. Scalia said the district was saying, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs,” while Kennedy opined that the district was telling its students that “everybody can get a meal,” but that only certain people can get “dessert.”

But as the Seattle district’s attorney Michael Madden argued, “This is not like being denied admission to a state’s flagship university.” Seattle students are “not being denied admission, they are being redistributed.” In fact, the district’s use of race in maintaining racial balance has been upheld by several Federal appeals courts, including one decision in the Seattle case written by Regan appointee Alex Kozinski who said the district’s assignment plan “carries none of the baggage the Supreme Court has found objectionable.”

The court’s decision will affect perhaps thousands of school districts around the country who consider race when making school assignments. Given the fact that most neighborhoods remain highly segregated, a decision in favor of the parents (which seems highly likely given the current make up of the court) would mean a gradual re-segregation of public schools (which may already be happening).

For more background on this story read my interview with David Engle, principal of Ballard High in Seattle where this case originated.

— Amaya Rivera

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