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Race-Based School Selection On Trial

U.S. Supreme Court Case Involving Integration Could Affect Sheff Ruling

December 5, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

With educators in Connecticut watching closely, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a pivotal case that could topple efforts to end racial disparities in public schools here and across the nation.

A critical element of those efforts is the use of race as a factor in assigning students to magnet schools and other voluntary integration programs. But parents in Louisville and Seattle, who brought the case, argued before the court Monday that the use of race is unconstitutional.

If the court agrees, the decision could have widespread implications across the nation in school districts using voluntary integration plans that establish racial quotas for schools or educational programs. A ruling is likely before the court term ends in June.

In Connecticut, were the court to prohibit the use of race, some experts believe it could threaten the basis on which dozens of voluntary integration programs have been established, including efforts to comply with a court order in the long-running Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation case.

"It would be in direct conflict with the [Sheff] decision," said Jack Hasegawa, head of the Office of Educational Equity in the Connecticut Department of Education. "It would overturn a lot of current law and practice regarding magnet schools."

The state has filed legal briefs supporting the cities of Louisville and Seattle in the Supreme Court case, said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "Clearly, the measures implemented in Sheff depend at least to some degree on using race as a factor in student assignments," he said.

Others, however, were less certain what the effect of such a ruling might be.

"It's hard to say until you see it," said Wesley Horton, a lawyer in the Sheff case who helped negotiate a 2003 settlement requiring the state to create additional magnet schools and expand a voluntary school choice program. "Our [plan] is different in many ways from Seattle's and Louisville's."

Connecticut's magnet schools generally do not single out students by race but attempt to achieve racial balance by selecting students based on where they live.

Another key difference is that the Sheff plan is the result of a state Supreme Court finding of racial discrimination in the Hartford schools, said John C. Brittain, who was a member of the legal team representing the Sheff plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs contended that the concentration of low-income, minority students in Hartford schools violated the state constitution's guarantees of equality in education.

Brittain, now chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, said: "Courts have generally allowed race-conscious measures where there has been a finding ... of discrimination. It's my legal opinion the Seattle and [Louisville] cases will not have any impact on Sheff vs. O'Neill."

In Washington Monday, the comments made during oral arguments suggest the Supreme Court may be leaning against the Louisville and Seattle programs.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who looms as the reconstituted court's swing vote on race questions, suggested the school districts were violating the Constitution's equal protection clause. He joined Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Antonin Scalia in criticizing the plans.

"You're characterizing each student by reason of the color of his or her skin," Kennedy said to the lawyer defending the Seattle plan. "It seems to me that should only be, if ever allowed, allowed as a last resort."

Seattle's system allows students to choose among high schools and then relies on tiebreakers - including race - to decide who gets into schools that have more applicants than openings.

In the Louisville case, a mother claimed her son was denied entrance to a neighborhood school because he is white. The metropolitan district was under a court desegregation order until 2001, but since then has continued to use an assignment plan using racial guidelines.

A decision striking down the plans would mark a shift on the court and underscore the impact of President George W. Bush's two appointees, Roberts and Alito. The last time the court considered the subject of racial diversity in education, in 2003, it said universities could consider race in making admissions decisions.

The Bush administration opposes the Seattle and Louisville plans, joining parents who sued after their children weren't assigned to their preferred school.

If the racial factor is banned, schools might have to consider using other means of achieving racial balance, such as using residency or socioeconomic status as factors in school assignments, some experts believe.

In Connecticut, for example, most magnet schools assign students using lotteries based on where students live, setting specific quotas for different towns. Because some have large minority or white populations, schools usually are able to achieve the desired balance, said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, which operates magnet schools in the Hartford region.

However, some magnet schools have had difficulty attracting enough white students to qualify for state magnet school funding or to meet the requirements of the Sheff case settlement.

In Connecticut, more than 40 magnet schools have been started over the past decade, including many in response to the 1996 Sheff decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The court ordered the state to desegregate Hartford's public schools, where most students are black or Hispanic.

As part of the Sheff settlement, the state also expanded a school choice program allowing Hartford students to enroll in mostly white suburban schools. Under the Sheff settlement, magnet schools and the choice program are expected to reach racial targets.

In addition, the state has a longstanding racial balance law that says the racial makeup of any public school must be within 25 percentage points of the overall racial makeup of the local school district.

It was unclear Monday how the case being considered by the Supreme Court might affect that requirement.

Since 1980, when the law's regulations took effect, the state has required several towns to redistrict schools or adjust attendance policies to comply with the law. One district watching the Supreme Court case closely is West Hartford, where officials are under pressure from the state to improve racial balance at two schools.

In a recent letter to the state education department, West Hartford Superintendent of Schools David P. Sklarz said that until the Supreme Court makes a ruling, "assignment to public schools by race remains an open issue."

An Associated Press report is included in this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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