Nearly a month after the U.S. Supreme Court severely restricted the use of race to bring about diversity in schools, a group of legal scholars and education officials gathered at a recent panel discussion on the issue and said Berkeley’s integration strategy is likely to withstand challenges based on the recent 5-4 decision, and may become a model for other districts that are struggling to integrate their schools without triggering legal barriers.
“We are very optimistic that the Berkeley plan will be a model adopted by others in other parts of the country,” said Michele Lawrence, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District and one of four panel members at the forum, which was held last Tuesday at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School.
Under Berkeley’s school assignment policy, which was developed five years ago by a community advisory group charged with coming up with a race-neutral integration strategy, students are categorized by geographic zones, which are determined by parent education level, parent income, and race. Students are assigned to schools based on personal preference and on the geographic zones in which they live, rather than on their race alone.
BUSD has thwarted challenges to its integration policy by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit which sued the district twice, alleging that Berkeley’s plan violated Proposition 209, a 1996 California law banning racial preferences in public education.
PLF attorney Paul Beard praised the recent ruling, saying it would open up another way to challenge BUSD’s and other districts’ racial integration policies. “We only brought 209 cases because of its stricter equal protection standard,” said Beard. “But we may use federal means in the future, depending on what the facts of the case are.”
But legal scholars at the forum seemed to agree with Lawrence’s belief that Berkeley’s policies will stand up against any new attacks by PLF or any other group. Goodwin Liu, an assistant law professor at Boalt who filed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year in favor of race-conscious school integration plans, said the Berkeley system is more coherent and comprehensive than those implemented in Louisville and Seattle, the two cities whose districts were sued in the cases recently decided by the court. He said that in Seattle the court’s majority determined that the district failed to prove that its plan passed the “compelling interest” test cited in the court ruling.