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ACLU Urges Court to Protect Diversity in Public Schools

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hear two cases today that will decide the fate of racial diversity in public schools, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief with the Court in both cases.

The cases arise from challenges to diversity programs in public schools in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky. While the school districts differ in the details of their programs, school officials in both cities determined that there were important educational reasons to maintain a racially diverse student body. To reach that goal, school officials may consider race as a factor when assigning students to a particular school if its racial balance is out of step with the district as a whole.

“The Supreme Court is poised to influence whether school systems will reflect the increasingly diverse face of America, or whether future schools will look more like those from our segregated past,” said Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “Racial diversity programs help ensure all students receive an equitable education, and prepares our young people for life beyond the school walls.”

Three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that public universities have a compelling interest in a racially diverse student body that permits them to use race as a factor in their admissions program. Today’s cases raise related issues for K-12 education.

In McFarland v. Jefferson County Public Schools, the legal attack on the efforts of Kentucky’s Jefferson County to maintain desegregated schools highlights the historical ironies of the effort to end voluntary school desegregation. As the result of an ACLU of Kentucky lawsuit, Jefferson County operated under federal court supervision from 1973 to 2000, and was compelled to take steps to desegregate schools that had previously been segregated on the basis of race. Once court supervision ended, the Jefferson County School District continued to make efforts to maintain desegregated schools, having found that racially integrated learning environments benefited all students educationally.

Although Seattle has never been under court order to desegregate its schools, its efforts also go back decades. Beginning in the 1960’s, Seattle tried to correct the racial imbalance in schools that resulted from stark patterns of residential segregation. After trying a series of approaches and considering a range of alternatives, Seattle adopted a plan for the 1998-1999 school year in which students would be allowed to choose between schools. Admission to over-subscribed schools would be determined by four “tie-breakers,” one of which considered race and would come into play only if the over-subscribed school were racially imbalanced. This attempt to address racial imbalance resulted in the current challenge to the program, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District.

Like Jefferson County, Seattle’s commitment to diverse schools resulted from its belief that doing so would achieve valuable educational goals for all of its students that could only occur in racially diverse settings. Both districts now face the prospect of being barred from achieving these goals through the use of a voluntary desegregation program.

“The Supreme Court has previously recognized that the state has a compelling interest to achieve racial diversity in education. Forcing schools to abandon any reliance on race would unfortunately deprive many school districts of the ability to achieve that goal,” said Steven R. Shapiro, National Legal Director of the ACLU.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU responds to the argument that racial diversity can be achieved solely through race-neutral measures, such as assigning students to schools based on socioeconomic factors. Through a review of the federal government’s own data, the ACLU concludes that neither magnet schools nor socioeconomic criteria have proved sufficient, by themselves, to address the re-segregation that plagues so many school districts across the country.

The ACLU’s brief and other resources on the cases are online at

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