Supreme Court to Rule on School Integration

Published March 1, 2007

On December 4, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. The Court’s ruling, which could come as early as this spring, could have a major impact on the cultural makeup of the nation’s schools.

The suits involve school districts in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky, respectively, that use selective admission policies to achieve racial balance in the student population.

“We are in a holding pattern to see what the Court says,” said Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, which is representing the Seattle and Jefferson County school districts. “The question is whether or not local communities will be able to decide through their school boards how learning institutions can be structured to create a diverse system.”

Racial Tiebreakers

In an attempt to keep the racial composition of each of Seattle’s 10 high schools within 15 percent of the district’s general population figures, the district uses an “integration tiebreaker.” The racial tiebreaker is used after other criteria–such as whether a student has siblings at the school and how far the child would have to travel–have been taken into account.

According to a December 3, 2006 Seattle Times story, about 60 percent of the school district was nonwhite in 1999, the first year the tiebreaker was used.

Jefferson County, Kentucky maintains racial balance in its district by ensuring each school has at least 15 percent but no more than 50 percent African-American students. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Jefferson County is about 20 percent African-American.

Quality Concerns

If integration policies such as the ones in question are deemed unconstitutional, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says the Court’s decision will adversely affect the quality of education for minority students.

“We are having a hard time hiring and retaining qualified teachers in schools that have a high minority population, which then creates academic achievement problems in these schools,” explained NAACP National Director Michael Wotorson. “We see this problem even though there are laws that require failing schools [to] hire highly qualified teachers.”

Negron attributes the recruitment problem to the working conditions in high-poverty, high-minority schools.

“Resources in schools directly relate to the socioeconomic status of [their] students,” Negron said. “And it leads to things like teacher burnout in schools that are highly racially isolated.

“Teachers have to deal with so much more than just curriculum in these schools, like a limitation of resources,” Negron continued. “Teachers want to work in schools where there are sufficient instruction materials and parental involvement. It’s not that they don’t want to help, but a person can only take so much.”

Declining Achievement

The Seattle case was filed by a group of parents after two white students were not accepted into Ballard Biotech Career Academy in 1999, partly because of the racial tiebreaker. Both students are now in college.

The Jefferson County case was filed by a white woman whose son, a kindergartner, was denied a transfer into a school because it needed more African-American students to maintain racial balance.

Most residents in both areas overwhelmingly support the voluntary integration policies of their respective school boards, Negron said.

“By and large, we have found that Americans support diversity not just in their communities but also in student-assignment policies,” Negron said. “Even the Supreme Court’s most touted conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, expressed in the oral arguments that the residents overwhelmingly supported the student assignment process–not just African-Americans, but also whites.”

A study released in November 2006 by the Center for American Progress found African-Americans and Latinos performed better academically when attending integrated schools.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.

For more information …

“U.S. Supreme Court to hear Seattle’s school racial-tiebreaker case,” by David Bowmaster and Emily Heffter, December 3, 2006,

U.S. Census Bureau Jefferson County, Kentucky,

“Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises: A National Analysis of School Racial Segregation, Student Achievement and ‘Controlled Choice’ Plans,” by Douglas N. Harris, published in November 2006 by the Center for American Progress, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20602.