Schools Can’t Use Race to Assign Students, Court Says

Published September 1, 2007

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that states cannot use racial quotas to assign students to schools in an effort to achieve diverse student bodies–the first time the Court has addressed the issue in K-12 education.

Free-market groups applauded the decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District Number One, saying it promotes a color-blind culture.

Before the ruling, lower courts had wrestled with the issue without a U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Analysts say the decision will affect school districts nationwide.

“It’s taken a long time to begin to unravel this forced integration, this divvying people up by race,” said Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. “With [this idea] so deeply entrenched, [it was inevitable] it would take a long time to come back and try and reach the ideal where we don’t distribute education based on somebody’s race.”

Old Problem

The Supreme Court responded to situations in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington, where students could be turned away from their school of choice if administrators thought their race would rock the balance the school sought.

The ruling centered on the constitutionality of using race quotas in school assignment processes. It also questioned the effects forcibly diverse classrooms have on children.

Lee Walker, president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization devoted to advancing conservative multiculturalism, said racially diverse classrooms do not necessarily improve education.

“There’s nothing magic about black kids sitting next to white kids,” Walker said.

Research shows diverse classrooms do not boost achievement, noted John R. Munich, a St. Louis-based lawyer who filed a legal brief in the case on behalf of three prominent social scientists, Dr. John Murphy, Dr. Christine H. Rossell, and Dr. Herbert J. Walberg. Walberg is chairman of The Heartland Institute’s board of directors.

Munich said the effects of forced integration on learning are neutral at best and detrimental at worst.

He filed his brief to give the court insight into the vast literature and research regarding the effects of forced diversity on education.

Nothing New

The crucial decision took a second glance at other rulings dating back to the 1960s and has freshly placed the spotlight on affirmative action in primary and secondary schools.

But beyond that, it’s not anything new, said Walker. He said the decision merely upholds a standard that’s been in place for about 50 years.

“I don’t know why folks were surprised,” Walker said.

The ruling isn’t contrary to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held schools could not segregate on the basis of race, Munich agreed.

Brown also involved courts in race issues, launching a long series of subsequent cases, Munich noted.

“Making decisions based on kids’ race is wrong no matter what and no matter when,” Munich said.

Right Step

The Court’s decision is constitutionally sound, McCluskey said. Nevertheless, so long as tax dollars fund public schools and the government decides which schools children attend, the education system cannot be truly just, he added.

“The only way to have real, complete freedom and justice within the education system is to give the parents money and let them choose the schools they want,” McCluskey said, adding they should be able to choose whether to send their children to public schools or private schools or homeschool them.

In the long run, the wisest course of action may be for schools to focus on their program offerings, not children’s race, Munich said. Schools should hunt for programs with a track record or strategy of improved achievement, he said.

Walker agreed.

“The bottom line here,” Walker said, “is public policy issues should always be thought of in terms of freedom and liberty.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

For more information …

The full text of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District Number One is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #21773.