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A Ruling On Race

Court Rejects Diversity Plans; Little Effect Seen In Hartford

June 29, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

A U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding schools from enrolling children strictly on the basis of race threatens many voluntary desegregation plans throughout the nation, but experts believe that it will have little effect on school desegregation efforts in Hartford.

That is because Hartford's court-approved desegregation plan in the Sheff v. O'Neill case differs from the voluntary plans in Louisville and Seattle that were overturned in Thursday's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling.

The key difference, legal experts said, is that the magnet schools and school choice plans that are a central piece of the Sheff efforts do not single out students by race. Rather, the plans attempt to achieve racial balance by selecting students based on where they live.

That strategy "falls firmly within what is permitted" by the Supreme Court, said Dennis D. Parker, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the long-running Sheff case.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said that Thursday's ruling "should have no impact on state programs to reduce racial isolation in Hartford public schools." Under the Sheff plan, "no student is forced to attend a particular school based on race."

The Supreme Court rejected voluntary plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, saying that assigning children to schools by race violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia joined the entirety of Roberts' 41-page opinion.

However, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority, left open the door for schools to pursue racial balance as long as individual students are not selected on the basis of race. He cited alternatives such as strategic site selection of new schools or attendance zones designed to tap into demographic patterns.

"A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."

Some civil rights leaders had feared that a ruling against the Seattle and Louisville plans would mark the end of an era of school integration efforts that began with the court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that outlawed deliberate school segregation. However, Kennedy's opinion leaves open, with some restrictions, opportunities for schools to pursue desegregation.

Although the ACLU's Parker called the decision "a significant step backward," he said, "The bottom line is that five justices [counting Kennedy] did agree that diversity and reduction of racial isolation is a legitimate governmental interest."

Theodore M. Shaw, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, "We got rained on today, but there's a silver lining." He said that Kennedy, who joined only part of Roberts' lead opinion, didn't go "as far as many people thought he might go."

Kennedy's assertion that racial balance remains a legitimate goal was seen as pivotal by legal experts.

"What Kennedy essentially is saying was, `I don't have any problem with race-conscious policies as long as they don't classify individual students by race,'" said Jack Balkin, a Yale University law professor and constitutional law expert.

Still, the ruling strips school boards of a tool to offset the impact of racially divided housing patterns. Both sides say that the practices used in Louisville and Seattle are common throughout the nation.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented. Breyer said that the ruling would "threaten the promise" of the 1954 Brown decision.

Some, however, hailed Thursday's ruling. "There can't be a dual system of school assignments based on race or ethnicity," said Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Racial quotas and preferences never produce diversity - they produce animosity, bitterness and perpetuate the belief that minority students just can't hack it."

The ruling reflects the influence on the high court of Alito and Roberts, both of whom were appointed by President Bush. Three years ago, before their appointments, the court ruled that universities could consider race in making admissions decisions.

Thursday's ruling comes just as Connecticut has tentatively agreed to take aggressive new measures to speed the pace of integration in Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic public schools.

Under a proposed extension of a 2003 settlement in the Sheff case, the state would spend millions of dollars more over the next five years to subsidize magnet schools, charter schools and other programs designed to bolster integration. The extension still must be approved by the legislature.

The original four-year settlement, due to expire this week, fell far short of its goals, including targets to more fully integrate magnet schools and to increase the number of Hartford schoolchildren enrolled in predominantly white suburban schools.

Plaintiffs in the Sheff case in 1996 won a state Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to desegregate Hartford's public schools, in which more than nine of 10 students are black or Hispanic.

Because some towns have large minority or white populations, magnet schools have tried to achieve racial balance by setting specific enrollment quotas for individual towns. That approach has had mixed success. Many recently established magnet schools in Hartford have had difficulty attracting enough suburban white students but have been more popular among minority students from both Hartford and its suburbs. However, some older regional magnet schools - notably those operated by the Capitol Region Education Council - have been able to attract racially mixed student bodies.

"We've never had to use a lottery that was race-based," said Bruce Douglas, the council's executive director. "We've been able to draw a large number of suburban students to our schools. ... This court case is not a significant concern to us."

In Seattle, the school system allows students to choose among high schools and then relies on tiebreakers - including race - to decide who gets into schools that have more applicants than openings.

In the Louisville case, a mother claimed that her son was denied entrance to a neighborhood school because he is white. The metropolitan district was under a court desegregation order until 2001, but since then it has continued to use an assignment plan using racial guidelines.

In Connecticut, while most observers said that the ruling would have little effect on the Sheff case, it was less clear what impact it would have on schools under orders to comply with the state's long-standing racial balance law.

That law says that the racial makeup of any public school must be within 25 percentage points of the overall racial makeup of the local school district.

Since 1980, when the law's regulations took effect, the state has required several towns to redistrict schools or adjust attendance policies to comply with the law.

Blumenthal, the attorney general, said that Thursday's ruling raises questions about how the state law might be applied, but that each case would have to be evaluated individually.

"We know of no particular racial balance plan in the state that would be invalid under the Supreme Court's ruling," he said.

Some towns, including Manchester and West Hartford, are under pressure from the state to improve racial balance at some schools.

In light of Thursday's court ruling, "we will definitely re-examine the entire racial balance plan we submitted to the state," said Margaret Hackett, chairwoman of the board of education in Manchester, which was cited two years ago because one of its 10 elementary schools was out of compliance.

West Hartford officials said that plans to reduce the racial isolation at two south end schools are based not on designating enrollment by race, but by boosting achievement at the schools and drawing families of all races from throughout West Hartford. The district will continue to work on improving the schools with an eye on how the court ruling will affect other integration efforts, said Jack Darcey, chairman of West Hartford's board of education.

Courant Staff Writers Jim Farrell and Fulvio Cativo contributed to this story. Wire reports are included.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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