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Challenges of the Supreme Court’s Desegregation Ruling

The Jefferson County Board of Education, near Louisville, Ky., decided to drop the use of an individual student’s race in determining school assignments. The move came after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in July that doing so without a court order is an unconstitutional violation of students’ rights to equal protection.

Last year, the Supreme Court heard the case of a mother in Jefferson County whose son had initially been denied transfer to the school of her choice because doing so would push the school out of its guideline to keep the black student population within 15 to 50 percent of the population at most other schools. At the same time, the Court heard a similar case on behalf of parents in Seattle, whose children were denied admittance to the city’s 10 most popular high schools based on a tie-breaker system that gave preference to non-white students.

Officials in Jefferson County and Seattle say finalizing new plans will be a lengthy process that may rely on the creativity and patience of school administrators and transportation departments. Both say they will look to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s separately filed opinion for how they can achieve diversity without violating the constitution.

With an estimated 1,000 districts in the United States using race-based assignment school systems, all eyes will be on Seattle and Jefferson County as they sort out what the ruling what it means for students, parents and student transportation.

Costs Based on Choice, Not Race
Rick Caple, Jefferson County’s transportation director, said dropping race as a consideration is unlikely to affect his budget.

This contradicts Teddy B. Gordon, the attorney who filed the suit against Jefferson County. he suggested racial integration was costly and ineffective in improving education.

“Instead of spending zillions of dollars around the country to place a black child next to a white child, let’s reduce class size,” Gordon was quoted by the Associated Press.

Jefferson County’s director of student assignment, Pat Todd, said most of the transportation costs are driven by student choice, not race.

“I don’t see the board turning back on choice,” she added.

Rather, the district will turn to Justice Kennedy’s possible options for achieving diversity without look at an individual’s race. Superintendent Sheldon H, Berman recommended the board develop a plan in this “spirit” that “will continue to support the goals of the Board of Education to maintain diversity on the schools.”

Such solutions, Justice Kennedy noted, could include strategic sight selection of new schools; redrawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance and other statistics by race.

While the district will not use race this school year, it seems unlikely that a consideration for diversity will soon be abandoned altogether.

Rick Caple said the majority of community is still interested in achieving racial diversity. Even if the district were to turn to community schools, it would likely have to spend even more money to construct new schools because current school sites do not align with student populations.

Limited Impact Now, Big Challenge Ahead
Like Caple, Dave Anderson, Seattle Public School’s director of transportation, rejects the idea that schools would save significantly if they dismantled busing resulting from race-conscious assignment plans. Anderson has been in pupil transportation for 30 years, including during Seattle’s adoption of the plan in question in 2000 and the suspension of race-based assignment in 2002, and says he did not see a change in his budget with the shift to or away from the program.

“It was only a tie-breaker, and only at the high school level,” he added.

The potential impact of the decision is further limited by the district’s recently launched pilot programs to move from transporting high school and some middle school students on school buses to public transportation. Because bus passes cost the school district the same amount regardless of the distance traveled, race-conscious assignments would have little impact on these costs.

Seattle will probably take a new look at it’s student assignment policy and, like Jefferson County, it will most likely take its cues from Justice Kennedy. The district’s assistant general counsel, Shannon McMinimee, said the district would also still aim to prevent racial isolation, as a “substantial” achievement gap in Seattle schools. Schools with the highest percentages of non-white students and those schools with the highest percentages of students on free and reduced lunch are struggling, McMinimee noted.

Currently, Seattle allows students choice within their geographic clusters and provides transportation only within them. Transferring to a school outside a students’ clusters is possible, but doing so forfeits students’ rights to free transportation.

The current system can be confusing and unpredictable for parents. The district will now look for transparency, predictability, diversity and an element that provides a starting point for all students in whatever system it chooses, McMinimee said.One possibility, would be redrawing the district’s 30-year-old attendance zones. Switching from a North-South to an East-West attendance line could help diversity.“It’s going to take a lot of time and creativity to right-side our boundaries,” she added.Another possibility would be replacing the old consideration of race that of the ratio of students on free and reduced lunch.

Schools Under Court Order Unaffected
The decision does not immediately affect the estimated 400 school districts nationwide currently under court desegregation orders. However, many of these schools are currently seeking “unitary status,” a release from their court order that indicates they have removed all past vestiges of discrimination. As soon as these court orders are removed, they too would have to change their plans to meet the court’s ruling.

In coming months, School Transportation News continues to look at alternative methods used across the country and what these mean for pupil transportation departments.

Reprinted from the September 2007 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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