Race matters

December 05, 2006

It's been quite a while since the U.S. Supreme Court has wrestled with desegregation in elementary and secondary schools, but a pair of cases heard yesterday puts the court back in the middle of this contentious issue. The justices are considering whether school systems can voluntarily take race into account to promote diversity among school populations without violating the Constitution. We think the answer should be yes.

School assignment plans in two districts are before the court. In Seattle, students could attend one of 10 public high schools in different parts of the city, but they had to apply for their school of choice. For the schools most in demand, officials considered a number of factors, including race, to achieve population balance within each school that was close to the overall balance in the district. In Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville, officials set a minimum of 15 percent and a maximum 50 percent minority enrollment in elementary, middle and high schools.

In each of those districts, parents whose children were denied admission to their preferred schools took legal action.

The cases offer a key test of where the court, with the most recent additions of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. , stands on equal opportunity and the importance of diversity. At yesterday's oral arguments, some of the justices, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is a potential swing vote, expressed concerns that the districts had gone too far in considering race.

But Harvard University researchers have found that more than 70 percent of black students and at least one-third of Hispanic students attend schools that are predominantly minority. Voluntary desegregation efforts such as those in Louisville and Seattle, as well as innovations such as magnet and charter schools, can clearly help overcome persistently segregated housing patterns, which are reinforced by reliance on neighborhood schools.

And although the Justice Department sided with the protesting parents - another sign of changing times - voluntary desegregation efforts can also help reach one of the goals of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law, to narrow achievement gaps between minority and white students - gaps that are often exacerbated by having large concentrations of minority and low-income children in the same schools.

Historically, local control has been both a blessing and a curse when it comes to school desegregation, but it would be a shame if the nation's highest court were not to allow local districts to take reasonable steps to improve diversity - and give all students a fair chance at a quality education.

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