Briefs were filed this week in the Supreme Court cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education, both of which concern the use of race by school districts to assign students to limited slots in public schools. The cases present social engineers the opportunity to extend the diversity rationale articulated in the 2003 University of Michigan case Grutter v. Bollinger to K-12 classrooms and by extrapolation to contexts beyond education.
The circuit courts in each of the cases relied upon Grutter to uphold the constitutionality of race-based assignments. While there are a number of factual differences between the two cases, both Seattle and Meredith involve attempts by the respective school districts to achieve racial balance by assigning some students to “open choice” schools on the basis of race. Because the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Seattle contains more factual detail, I’m going to focus here on the Seattle case.
The law holds that racial classifications created by the state are inherently suspect. Therefore, such classifications will be struck down unless they pass the two-prong strict-scrutiny standard: (1) the classification must serve a compelling governmental interest and (2) be narrowly tailored to serve that interest. I’ve written before about how the Seattle race-based assignment system likely will be struck down by the Supreme Court for failing to serve a compelling governmental interest. The system also will be struck down because it fails the narrow tailoring prong.
In Grutter, the Supreme Court found the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative-action policy to be narrowly tailored because race was only one factor among many ( including employment history, geographic origin, foreign-language proficiency, SAT scores, GPA, extracurricular activities, etc.) considered in the admissions process. Race (purportedly) was not the sole or dominant factor in the admissions equation. Rather, it was considered in a flexible, individualized, non-mechanical manner.
In Grutter’s companion case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court struck down Michigan’s affirmative-action policy for undergrad admissions. That policy automatically awarded minority applicants 20 points in the admissions process—making race the dominant factor in determining whether the student was admitted. The Court held that the rigid, mechanical, and oppressive application of race wasn’t narrowly tailored enough to pass strict scrutiny.
Seattle’s racial-assignment policy is even more broadly designed than that in Gratz. The purpose of Seattle’s plan is to ensure that no high school is racially unbalanced. (“Racially unbalanced” means that a school’s racial composition differs by more than 15 percent from the racial composition of the district as a whole). Race is the only factor considered if there are too many or too few nonwhites—Seattle’s policy recognizes only two racial categories: whites and everybody else. The policy doesn’t distinguish between blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
The fact that race (or more precisely, Seattle’s peculiar definition thereof) is the sole factor in determining assignments to racially imbalanced schools is fatal to a claim that the policy is narrowly tailored. Seattle is simply engaging in racial balancing prohibited by the Supreme Court.
Seattle Public Schools wants Central Area residents to participate as the school district prepares to close a second school in the neighborhood. Instead, a group of prominent community leaders sued the district this week, accusing the superintendent and School Board of circumventing state law and its own processes to make racially motivated decisions about which schools to close.
Brenda Little, a former school-district attorney, is representing an African-American community group that includes a former president of the Washington State Bar Association and several ministers. The group, SOCKED—Save Our Children/ Kid’s Education Defense Fund—has the support of at least one School Board member. Sally Soriano wrote part of the court filing.
Members of the group say some of the closing schools had been struggling for years due to a lack of attractive programs, deferred building maintenance and shrinking enrollment boundaries. District officials, the group argues, had determined which schools to close before hearing from the community.
The board voted to close six school buildings in fall 2007; another, Martin Luther King Elementary, closed at the end of this past school year. More than 80 percent of the kids at elementary schools on the closure list are students of color, compared to about 60 percent districtwide.
Superintendent Raj Manhas is expected to make recommendations Sept. 18. “The real racism lies in the fact that if we keep schools with low population and don’t provide the services in the classroom that they deserve, that’s a fundamental issue,” Manhas said.
African-American leaders say the early closure of MLK Elementary stung. Even though the school’s principal volunteered to merge with nearby T.T. Minor this fall, the school’s parent-group president and some teachers say they didn’t get to play a role in the decision.