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A Practical End to Racial Diversity in Schools

by Claire Smrekar - July 16, 2007

This commentary reviews the legal and policy implications of the recent Supreme Court rulings on race-based student assignment plans. The author rejects all remedies suggested by the Court and calls for new commitment to re-thinking the intersection of race and residential segregation.

On June 28, 2007 the Court essentially eliminated any practical (if not legal) approach to reducing racial isolation in schools by asserting that such efforts equated to racial discrimination, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts. The Chief Justice was neither narrow nor nuanced in a 5-4 majority opinion that asserted, The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. Thus, the final hammer blow was struck to the hundreds of districts nationwide that currently use students race in student assignment and parent choice plans.

How the Court got it wrong

In sum, the districts failed to justify the extreme means they have chosen discriminating among individual students based on race& The majority opinion suggests that race could be taken into consideration by districts like Louisville if race were one of many considered student factors (and not the only factor), including other background characteristics, special talents and special needs. This was the decision rule applied by Justice OConnor in her majority opinion in the landmark 2003 University of Michigan Law School admissions case known as Grutter. In other words, Louisville was using race in a singular, mechanical, and unconstitutional way, according to the majority. To pass constitutional muster, students must be considered individually and holistically in any assignment plan that uses race and is pegged to the aims of racial diversity. The problem with this reasoning is simple. This may be possible in a law school (or in some colleges) but surely impossible in most urban school districts that must assign tens of thousands of students every year across up to (and sometime more than) 100 schools. Besides, the special talents that can be found in a five year old are quite different from those which can be discerned from a 22-year old applicant to a law school. If this individualized review process were possible under current conditions and resources, wouldnt districts ideally adopt or propose this policy as a plank of their diversity aims? But this approach is surely not possible or practical.

The problem of practicality

Justice Kennedy, in a concurring opinion that underscores that a district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population, offers race neutral mechanisms designed to achieve the aims of racial diversity. Now the NAACP and other groups optimistically assert that Kennedys controlling opinion keeps racial diversity aims viable for districts nationwide. I respectfully dissent. Kennedys remedies point to the problem of practicality and the probable demise of the use of race in school policies designed to promote racial diversity a critical irony in the aftermath of this decision.

Kennedy proposes the following possible remedies to achieve racial diversity (and chastises Louisville for failing to consider them): 1) devising student attendance zones to encompass racially defined/segregated neighborhoods; 2) building new schools in racially mixed neighborhoods or in areas that straddle racially identifiable neighborhoods; and 3) developing special or unique programs. The problems (or challenges) associated with these approaches are well known and well understood. The first remedy is often associated with cross-town busing plans that collect students from across racially segregated city neighborhoods and deposit them at a single school; this is antithetical to most parents priorities of close proximity between school and home. The cost of busing is extreme and the burden almost always born disproportionately by African American families. The second proposal bumps up against the reality of scarce resources for building new schools on real estate other than those parcels priced at the lowest end or in the least desirable sections of town. This could work if only it were practical. Third, special programs as conceived by Justice Kennedy already exist in magnet schools (and charter schools) but the patterns of resegregation are clear and compelling in districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg that were once desegregation success stories but are now obligated to use race-neutral admissions in these choice schools. Why the resegregation pattern? Parents tend to choose schools that are closest to home (indeed, this is the right the Louisville parent sued for); patterns of housing segregation produce patterns of segregated neighborhood schools under these realities. Another reality check: white parents tend to pull their children out of schools when African American student enrollment tips a bit beyond 40%. This is the so-called white flight phenomenon well documented across numerous research studies on school desegregation over the past several decades.


The compelling interest

Does race matter 50 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision? Brown struck down the use of race as a mechanism to segregate white and African American children. On June 28, the majority struck down the use of race as a mechanism to integrate white and African American (and Latino) children. The Courts majority saw race, period. The Louisville and Seattle districts (and hundreds of others across the nation) saw the same mechanism use of students race -- but a radically different goal: to integrate or in other words, avoid racial segregation in schools.

The districts aim is based on fundamental understandings, derived from decades of educational research regarding the social and academic benefits of racially diverse schools. In sum: students who attend racially integrated schools are far more likely in adulthood to live in racially diverse neighborhoods and to work in racially diverse settings. Social interactions formed as young students in elementary, middle and high schools form the basis for cross-racial interactions and friendships later in adult life. The dissent points to this reality in a scathing rebuke to the majority opinion that indicates racial diversity is important in law school settings or higher education, only (affirming the 2003 Grutter opinion for colleges and universities). A cynic could conclude that this majority believes racial diversity is crucial for 20-year olds but not for 10-year olds.

The academic benefits of diversity are evidenced in the achievement gains for African American students who attend integrated schools. The story of Brown is the impressively large gains made by African American students following the dismantling of segregated systems in the 1970s and 1980s the height of desegregation activity in U.S. schools nationwide.

But what is perhaps most paramount in this discussion is what occurs in the absence of racial diversity plans. This is the problem and reality -- of inequity that is at the epicenter of school desegregation policies. Segregated African American schools tend to reflect the concentrated poverty of the urban (or some rural) neighborhoods in which these students live. In other words, racially isolated schools for African Americans students usually translate into isolated, high poverty schools in which there is a higher proportion of inexperienced teachers, a higher turnover among teachers and students, more limited curriculum and educational resources, lower average achievement and higher dropout rates. Thus, school integration polices not only serve democratic aims by creating conditions of civility across diverse groups of young students, these programs may, under admittedly ideal conditions, advance students along a pathway of higher achievement, attainment, and expanded employment opportunities.  

If not race, then class?

In response to a flurry of legal opinions in the past decade hostile to the use of race except under the most narrowly tailored conditions, some districts have moved to using socio-economic status as a mechanism for maintaining diversity in schools. Wake County, North Carolina is a notable example, in which students are assigned to schools based upon a familys social class.  Specifically, poverty rates (measured by eligibility for the federal free and reduced lunch program) are capped at 40% at every Wake County school (some schools have a higher rate, but not many). Students are assigned (and re-assigned) to schools to maintain this mix of kids across socio-economic backgrounds. This policy avoids the problems of concentrated poverty noted earlier and achieves racial diversity goals (because race and class are closely linked). In the aftermath of the Courts prohibition on the use of race, some scholars and district officials are now pointing to the use of social class as a mechanism to achieve the diversity goals anchored to race-based district integration policies. Will it work? The problem again, the reality of this approach is that it depends on the density of poverty in a district, or simply put, the percentage of poor kids in the district. Wake County includes Raleigh and the Research Triangle. The socio-economic mix sits at the higher end of the income spectrum. Thus, the district poverty rate, as measured by the eligibility rate for the free and reduced lunch program, is a relatively low 24%, making the target of the 40% cap attainable. In most urban school districts, the rate is much higher, rendering the aim of socio-economic integration more of a dream than a reality. No, class-based student assignment is not a panacea for this problem.

Moving forward in the dark

What priorities will shape school policies as districts react to this end to race-conscious desegregation plans? Should cities revisit a renewed focus upon housing policies that promote residentially integrated or mixed-income developments? In reality, thats often challenging (given zoning, space, residents preferences) and certainly long-term. What about reshaping school districts in terms of the way students are assigned and parents choose? What about a market of smaller and distinctive schools in each school district in which parents choose based upon their preferences? Would this arrangement naturally shape a set of diverse (racially and socio-economically) educational environments for students? Well, no, for the reasons outlined earlier, but what if districts adopted the Grutter law school admissions-constitutionally permissible approach to admissions policies: the individualized and holistic review? This open enrollment approach could establish the smaller administrative units required for the individual review of each student to each school, considering race as one (not the) factor among other background characteristics functioning like a district of magnet and charter schools without any student assignment plans. This reflects Justice Kennedys suggested alternative for a race-neutral approach to reach a diversity-conscious goal. Are the resources available for this kind of plan in most districts?  Answer: no.  But this is a clarion call for new levels of will and capacity. No one can know now what is the most efficacious approach to achieving the aim of diversity in schooling under these newly drawn constraints. Only one thing is certain on this summer morning in 2007 after the most important Supreme Court ruling on race and education in over 50 years: the color-blind Constitution that the majority so forcefully foisted upon the districts of Louisville and Seattle will shape the lives of all school children well beyond the classrooms and corridors they occupy this fall.   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 16, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14549, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:03:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Claire Smrekar
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    CLAIRE SMREKAR is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University. She received her doctorate in Educational Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University in 1991. Dr. Smrekar has conducted qualitative research studies related to the social context of education and public policy, with specific reference to family-school-community interactions in traditional public, private, and choice schools. Her current research involves a study of school and neighborhood effects associated with school choice and race-neutral student assignment plans. A Nashville-based pilot project currently underway focuses upon the intersection of public housing reform and neighborhood schools. Professor Smrekar is the author of two books: The Impact of School Choice and Community: In the Interest of Families and Schools (1996), Albany: State University of New York (SUNY) Press and; School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity, with E. Goldring, (1999), New York: Teachers College Press. She is also the lead author on a report that examines the social s and academic structures in Department of Defense-managed schools (The March Toward Excellence), published by the National Education Goals Panel (2001).
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