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Court Strikes Down Racial Criteria in School Diversity Plans

The Supreme Court Thursday ruled against allowing race-based criteria in proposed diversity plans in two school districts. Following a report by Marcia Coyle on the ruling and the mood in the courtroom, Roger Clegg and Theodore Shaw, two experts in race relations analyze the likely impact of the Court's decision.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    The U.S. Supreme Court changes the rules on race in the schools. Jeffrey Brown lays out the decision.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The ruling by the Supreme Court this morning involved school districts in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington. In both cases, the school board used skin color as at least one factor in assigning students to public schools.

    NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal was in the court for what turned out to be a very dramatic day. And she joins us now.

    Marcia, why don't you start by giving us a brief reminder of the facts? What were Louisville and Seattle trying to do?

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Well, the parents of students in the elementary schools and high schools in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, challenged those school districts' student assignment plans. Those plans generally gave students a choice of schools to attend, and most students got their first choice. But where the race of a student would make a difference in the desired racial composition of a particular school, the race characteristic of the student could determine where he or she went.

    The parents challenged that plan, saying classifying our children by race violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. But the school districts countered — and they did this successfully in the lower courts — that they had compelling interests in reducing racial isolation in their schools, achieving a diverse student body population, and also combating the effects in their schools of segregated housing patterns.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So the school districts won in the lower courts, but today the Supreme Court said, no, you've gone too far in using race?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    That's correct, Jeff. In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the court voted 5-4 to strike down these plans as unconstitutional. The chief said that, even if the interests here that the school district asserted were compelling interests, these plans were not narrowly tailored.

    These are classic words in constitutional analysis. When the government classifies you by race, the court has held that that classification undergoes the Constitution's most searching examination. The government has to prove there's a compelling interest and that the means the government uses to achieve that interest is narrowly tailored.

    The chief justice said these plans were not narrowly tailored, because they were designed and they operated to achieve racial balance, not the other interests. He said race was the only factor here.

    Also, he said, there was no larger educational concept that the districts were relying on to achieve the benefits of a diverse student body; these plans were based on racial demographics. He quoted from the court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education and said that Brown promised that no child would be sent to school on the basis of his or her race. The best way, he said, to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

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