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U.N. Criticizes Segregation in U.S. Schools; Supreme Court to Hear Cases Challenging Integration

On July 28, the U.N. Human Rights Committee released a report that was critical of racial segregation in public schools in the United States. The report reviews practices of the United States in regards to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty to which the United States is a signatory. The report comments and makes recommendations on a number of human rights issues, including alleged racial discrimination in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and what the Committee called “de facto racial segregation in public schools.”

Wide Quality Disparities

The Committee’s report points to “discrepancies between the racial and ethnic composition of large urban districts and their surrounding suburbs, and the manner in which school districts are created, funded and regulated.” The report concludes that these discrepancies result in “wide disparities in the quality of education” received by students of different races. The Committee recommends that the federal government take steps to remedy these problems, in order to fulfill its obligation under the ICCPR.

Article 26 of the ICCPR states that “[T]he law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination.” According to the Committee, even if the current system is not intentionally discriminatory, the language of the Covenant includes practices that have a discriminatory effect. Article 2 puts the burden on each signatory to the treaty to “undertake[] to respect and to ensure to all individuals…the rights recognized in the present Covenant.” One hundred forty-nine countries are signatories to the Covenant.

However, the only strength of the Covenant lies in its moral force. Though the Senate ratified the treaty in 1992, it included in the report on the ratification that “the Covenant will not create a private cause of action in U.S. Courts.”

Integration Before U.S. Supreme Court

While studies show that U.S. schools have become more segregated in recent years, many mandatory desegregation orders have been lifted, and voluntary integration plans have faced challenges in federal courts. On June 5, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases involving school districts where race is a factor in public school assignments. In one case, a federal appeals court upheld a system in Seattle that used race as a “tiebreaker” in determining admission to schools. The other case was brought against the Jefferson County school district in Kentucky (which includes Louisville), which was under a desegregation order from 1974 to 2000 and has used voluntary measures ever since. Despite plaintiff’s claim that a student was denied entrance to his neighborhood school because he was white, the federal appeals court upheld the integration plan. Arguments are likely to take place in November.

On July 31, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the voluntary integration plan in place in Lynn, Massachusetts. In June 2005, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Lynn’s plan, which takes the racial composition of a school into account if a child wishes to attend a non-neighborhood school.

Prepared by Matthew Samberg, August 16, 2006