Race Balancing in High Schools Tops Supreme Court Agenda

By Melanie Arter | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

(Editor's note: Changes reference to high school in Kentucky case in 1st, 2nd, and 10th paragraphs.)

(CNSNews.com) - The controversy over affirmative action will once again be thrust in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Monday when justices hear arguments in two cases involving school racial balancing. School district officials in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., are defending programs they devised to maintain the desired racial make-up of their schools.

But in each case, white parents, backed up by the Bush administration, are alleging that the use of race in determining school admissions is unconstitutional. Lower court opinions have gone against the white parents.

The two cases - Parents In Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Public Schools, are expected to trigger emotions outside the Supreme Court Monday as liberal civil rights groups like the NAACP and groups supporting the white parents like the Center for Individual Rights conduct demonstrations.

Terence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, wrote in a recent op/ed that "The Seattle and Louisville race plans seem much closer to the kind of naked racial balancing that the court said it never would allow. Both cases show what is wrong with this kind of racial engineering, even when it is designed to increase integration and improve racial understanding."

Pell, the U.S. Justice Department and the white parents from Seattle and Louisville contend that the racial balancing plans violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"School officials contend that the (racial balancing) policy helps socialize students by teaching them to live and work with students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds," Pell wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"But in reality, the plans work to the detriment of genuine racial diversity because they focus solely on the percentage of 'white vs. nonwhite' students. School officials are concerned only with the percentage of whites in each school, treating as interchangeable and equivalent the different groups that compose the nonwhite population," Pell added.

The Seattle plan stipulates that when classrooms in a particular school fill up, the school district is able to use race and other factors to decide who gets into the school.

The often criticized 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Seattle plan, ruling that "the district has a compelling interest in securing the educational and social benefits of racial (and ethnic) diversity."

Louisville's plan to counter segregation involves prohibiting schools from becoming more than 50 percent black or less than 15 percent black. Crystal Meredith, the parent of a white student, challenged the plan, arguing that it prevented her son from attending a school in his neighborhood because the school had too many white students.

The Louisville student population is 34 percent African-American.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is urging the Supreme Court to uphold the racial balancing programs in Seattle and Louisville.

"We believe that student assignment plans that take race into consideration are reflective of the highest traditions of advancing democracy and ensuring equal opportunity. It's time that the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, and the Bush Administration join the movement to protect these high ideals," the NAACP stated.

"We support the use of race as a factor in determining student assignment. Moreover, we believe the use of race in the Louisville and Seattle cases meets an important and narrowly-tailored interest and does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," the group added.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has been joined by groups like the Anti-Defamation League in filing an amicus brief in support of the racial balancing or "student assignment plans."

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