U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Cases on Race-Based Enrollment

The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will hear appeals in two cases that involve the constitutionality of using the race of students to decide public school placements. The cases involve two cities, Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky, that adopted voluntary integration programs in recent years as a way to maintain racially integrated schools.


The school board plan in Seattle (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District) seeks to achieve a rough balance of 40 percent white and 60 percent nonwhite enrollment at each of the city’s 10 public high schools. Under the district’s “Open Choice” plan, parents could send their children to any school within the city. The school board established “tiebreakers” based on race to help achieve racial diversity– students who were members of an “oversubscribed” race would be given a lower priority for admission than any students of the desired race.


The second case (Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education) involves the Louisville school district, which set broad guidelines that the black student population of any particular school should range between 15 percent and 50 percent. School administrators drew boundaries for each school that extended into both white and black neighborhoods. Students were randomly selected from an integrated pool of prospective students. School officials also tracked prospective students by classifying each by race (white or black) and gender.


These cases are important and will be closely watched. The new lineup of justices, including the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with Justice Samuel Alito, may shift the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of affirmative action programs. Justice O’Connor provided the key swing vote and authored the 5-4 decision in 2003 upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s admission plan holding that higher education had a “compelling” need to consider a student’s race if it was to maintain diversity in classes. The ruling was a major defeat for conservatives who believe that it is unconstitutional for the government to use a person’s race as a factor in hiring, awarding contracts, admitting college students, or assigning students to public schools.


Arguments in the two cases are expected to take place in November.

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