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Supreme Court Revisits Race in Public Schools

The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday about whether schools in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., can consider race when placing students in public elementary and secondary schools. The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle explains the cases that could affect millions of students nationwide.

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  • LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent:

    Being the center of a Supreme Court case was the last thing Kathleen Brose imagined when she and her husband bought this house with a view of Mount Rainier in a tony Seattle neighborhood.

    KATHLEEN BROSE, President, Parents Involved in Community Schools: We moved into this neighborhood believing it would be a great place to raise a family and that our kids would attend the neighborhood schools, just like we did when we grew up.

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    It didn't work out that way. In 2000, her daughter, Elizabeth, graduated eighth grade and applied to the newly remodeled Ballard High School nearby. But that school was full. Under the Seattle district's student assignment plan, her assignment was then based on whether it would help desegregate a school.

    The district wanted the make-up of each Seattle school to mirror the racial breakdown of the district itself: 40 percent white; 60 percent nonwhite. So, though she had marked two other schools as back-ups, Elizabeth was assigned to Franklin High, a heavily black school with lower test scores eight miles away.

  • KATHLEEN BROSE:

    She got discriminated against because she was told she couldn't go to three different schools because she had the wrong skin color.

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    She's white.

  • KATHLEEN BROSE:

    Yes, she's white. She was told basically, "You have no value to us, except your skin color. We don't care if it's going to be a burden to have you get on that school bus every day."

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    Three hundred of the Seattle district's 46,000 students were placed according to their race in the 2000-2001 school year. Brose, a former PTA president, led parents in a lawsuit against the school board. They argued the policy violated the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • KATHLEEN BROSE:

    It's wrong. It's illegal. To me, it's immoral. This is the United States. We do not discriminate.

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    The Seattle School District suspended the policy after the 2001-2002 school year, pending the legal challenge, but it maintains it has a compelling interest to provide diversity at all of its schools. Superintendent Raj Manhas.

  • RAJ MANHAS, Superintendent, Seattle Public Schools:

    You know, our role is to educate kids, not only to do really well in school, but to be very effective citizens of the future of our nation and the world. And the world is changing around us.

    You know, it's not all about what kind of grades we got; it's about, how can we interact with others? How can we work with others? And so that itself is an educational benefit.

  • TEACHER:

    OK, how about Malcolm X? How many people see that probably one of the reasons that he was not taught to read well was because of race at the time?

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    The Seattle district proudly shows off the educational and social environment at its Chief Sealth High School, where the racial mix is one quarter white, one quarter African-American, one quarter Asian-American, and a growing percentage of Latinos.

  • TEACHER:

    In a moment, you're going to be writing about that, OK?

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    But the district says, as good as the social mix is at this school, its other schools have been harder to integrate without use of the racial tie-breaker. Manhas says, with the tie-breaker, the district was able to mix 21 percent white students into Franklin High's nonwhite majority. Without it, the school is now only 10 percent white.

  • RAJ MANHAS:

    I believe it will be a real loss if we lost even this small, one, little factor, which we have the ability to use right now, to promote more of this diverse learning environment for all of our students.

  • LEE HOCHBERG:

    Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the school district's policy. Writing for the majority, Judge Raymond Fisher said, "The district has a compelling interest in securing the educational and social benefits of racial and ethnic diversity."

    But four dissenting judges argued research studies are mixed on whether diversity benefits students academically.

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