The Supreme Court signaled Monday it is poised to ban student assignments to public K-12 schools based on race. The Court is considering two cases from public school districts in Seattle and Lexington, Ky. The expected decision would force hundreds of districts to scrap integration plans and many other school districts, including San Francisco, to forestall plans to implement them.
School integration plans have followed in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and subsequent cases. Those cases declared that schools segregated by race were inherently unequal and that districts should move with all deliberate speed to integrate schools.
School integration plans have been challenged over the years as students have been denied admission to one school or another based upon race.
Initially, liberals sought to desegregate schools, citing as rationale the Equal ProtectionClause of the Constitution. Increasingly, conservatives invoke the equal protection clause to support their argument that integration plans deny some students equal access.
The Supreme Court has left the waters muddied, chipping away at Brown v. Board of Education, but nevertheless reaffirming the prerogative of public universities to use race as a factor in admissions.
If the conservative majority of the court does ban the use of race in the Lexington and Seattle cases, the decision would represent a departure from the deference that conservatives usually pay to the judgment of local officials. Conversely, a decision not to upset the judgment of the respective school boards would be contrary to the normal liberal stance advocating federal intervention.
The drama is ringed with other interesting permutations. Voters in several states such as California, Washington and, most recently, Michigan have passed legislation prohibiting the consideration of race by public entities. The Michigan vote was a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in 2003 to allow public universities to consider race in admissions.
Tuesday, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled by a one-vote margin that a private school in Hawaii could discriminate against children based on their racial ancestry. Although the facts of that case make it readily distinguishable from the cases now before the Supreme Court, it is quite possible the Hawaii case will force the Supreme Court to enlarge the parameters it is now considering.
Ironically, the judges who upheld the Hawaiian school’s segregation policy were all Democratic presidential appointments. All but one of the judges who dissented were appointed by Republicans.
The debate over diversity/racial preferences/affirmative action has obscured the true meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. Third-grader Linda Brown’s family sued the Topeka, Kan. school board so thattheir daughter could walk to a neighborhood school and get a quality education instead of being bused to a segregated school. Linda and her family wanted what every family wants, regardless of whether their child sits next to a Hispanic-American, a Caucasian-American or any other race.
When we get past the issue of race, we are left with the real issue that should be addressed by our public officials: How can all our schools provide a quality education to all our students.
Patrick Mattimore is a former prosecutor and taught in public schools for ten years. He now teaches at a private college preparatory school in San Francisco.