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Amicus Briefs Examine Benefits of School Integration

The contested efforts of public school districts in Seattle, Washington and Jefferson County, Kentucky to maintain racial balance in their schools are constitutionally valid and are supported by a half-century of both legal precedent and social science research, according to an amicus brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court by one of the nation's leading experts on school desegregation. The Court's decision could profoundly alter the ability of local school authorities to pursue the vision articulated by the Court in Brown v. Board of Education, its landmark 1954 desegregation ruling.

The amicus brief was written by Amy Stuart Wells, of Columbia University’s Teachers College, and argues that even if the race-conscious policies warrant “strict scrutiny” by the Supreme Court (which she argues they do not), school integration serves a compelling government interest, based on its profound long-term benefits. Co-signed by scholars, such as Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University), Jeannie Oakes (UCLA), Jay Heubert (Teachers College) and Michael A. Rebell (Teachers College), this brief was filed through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Long-Term Benefits

Wells’s brief primarily focuses on the long-term benefits of school integration. She cites social science data that shows integrated schools have a strong, positive effect on students’ racial attitudes and ability to interact with others in multiracial settings. The data show that minority students receive long-term benefits from integrated schools: they tend to move into more racially integrated settings in their lives and careers; they experience greater social mobility; they have higher occupational aspirations; and they develop intergroup skills that benefit both the graduates and their employers.

At the same time, research shows that white students who attend racially integrated schools have fewer racial stereotypes and prejudices, even controlling for other relevant social factors. Not only do integrated schools help the life chances of minority students, they also lessen the discrimination they face in society. Furthermore, Wells presents research showing that schools are often the only place that children are exposed to the multicultural experiences that lead to these benefits.

“Equal Opportunity” Versus “Equal Protection”

Other amicus briefs submitted in the case argue for and against school integration policies. A brief submitted on behalf of the Council of Great City Schools, the Public Education Network, and other organizations argues that integrated schools are necessary for closing the achievement gap. “Racially isolated schools do not provide equal educational opportunities,” they argue, and “closing the achievement gap…depends critically on the integration of public schools.” In addition, they cite Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 case in which the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School, citing the importance of racial diversity in education. If racial diversity is important in higher education, the authors of the brief argue, it is an essential factor in K-12 education. Furthermore, they also claim that policies such as the ones being challenged are the only way to achieve integrated schools; schools in which such plans have been lifted have “experienced significant resegregation upon a return to race-neutral methods.”

On the other side, the Bush administration and various organizations have filed briefs opposing the integration policies. Using race as a factor in deciding school attendance, they argue, amounts to an equal protection violation against whites under the 14th Amendment. The policies discriminate against whites and are thus unconstitutional. A brief from the American Enterprise Institute characterizes voluntary integration plans as racial classifications, which are “the most divisive of all policies” and “destroy confidence in the Constitution and in the idea of equality.”

All Eyes on the Supreme Court

Although courts have been quietly lifting school desegregation orders for years, many school districts have retained voluntary integration programs, which use race as a factor in determining which students may attend a given school. In recent years, plaintiffs have started to challenge these programs in federal courts.

Arguments in the consolidated cases – Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education – will be held before the Supreme Court on December 4. In the former case, a federal appeals court upheld a system that used race as a “tiebreaker” factor in determining which students may attend an oversubscribed high school. In the latter case, a federal appeals court upheld the system in Jefferson County. The Jefferson County school district, which was under a desegregation order from 1974 to 2000, does not permit a student to enroll in a school if the student brings the black enrollment below 15 percent or above 50 percent. In both cases, the systems are being challenged by white plaintiffs who were denied admission to a school they wanted to attend.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a voluntary integration plan in place in Lynn, Massachusetts in June 2005. Though the Supreme Court chose not to include an appeal of the Lynn case, the Lynn plan, as well as integration plans across the county, may also rest on this case.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has called these “two of the most important cases …involving issues of race” that the Court has heard in a long time. Their importance is further highlighted by a recent UN Human Rights Commission report suggesting that the state of segregation in U.S. schools may violate an international human rights treaty to which the United States is a signatory. With the education of so many of America’s schoolchildren at issue in this case, educators and politicians across the country will be watching closely for the Supreme Court’s decision.

Prepared November 3, 2006