Three Years After Landmark Court Decision, Louisville Still Struggles With School Desegregation

Robert Barnes, Washington Post, September 20, 2010

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made it sound so simple that day in 2007, when he and four other members of the Supreme Court declared that this city’s efforts to desegregate its schools violated the Constitution.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote, “is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

But life has been anything but simple for school officials here. They have steadfastly–or stubbornly, depending on the point of view–tried to maintain integrated classrooms despite the court’s command that officials not consider race when assigning children to schools.

Consultants were hired, lawyers retained, census data scrubbed, boundaries redrawn, more buses bought, more routes proposed, new school choices offered and more lawsuits defended.

The final product, which integrates schools based on socioeconomic factors rather than on race alone, has proven to be more complex and costly than the previous system. Long bus rides and complaints from a vocal minority of parents have threatened popular support of the plan. The school board has delayed full implementation. The legislature is contemplating whether to guarantee parents a spot in their neighborhood schools.

It has been a long three years for school officials since the court for the first time took away the simplest and most efficient way to integrate classrooms: making decisions based upon a student’s race. It was a landmark moment for a court that has long struggled with race-conscious decisions by government: when they are warranted, and when they have outlived their usefulness.

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The decision’s impact

The impact of the decision, which directly involved schools here and in Seattle and set rules for school boards across the nation, already has been noteworthy. Seattle has mostly abandoned efforts to force diverse classrooms; it has returned to a system of neighborhood schools augmented by magnet schools and new educational programs scattered throughout the city.

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But Louisville, along with a number of other like-minded systems across the country, is betting that using socioeconomic factors, not just race, will help maintain diverse schools and meet the Supreme Court’s requirements.

Those who have battled the school system here say it is nothing more than an end run around the court’s decision, a misguided experiment by school officials who should be focused on the bigger goal of improving education.

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But school Superintendent Sheldon Berman, who started his job days after the 2007 Supreme Court decision, said he is convinced that a school system cannot be successful for all children without diverse classrooms. If Louisville’s plan is more costly and complex, he said, it is because of a flawed and doctrinaire court decision that ignored the consequences.

“If we’re going to create a vital democracy, and see our schools as the seeds of that democracy, we need schools that maintain diversity,” Berman said in a recent interview.

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A new look at race

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Louisville’s case was particularly striking. From 1975 to 2000, the system was under a federal court order to desegregate its schools. When the court decided that had been accomplished, school officials voluntarily continued with the race-conscious plans so that the progress made would not be lost.

It was a point of civic pride to make sure that the combined city and county schools not be seen as segregated, said John K. Bush, a Louisville lawyer who filed a brief with the court on behalf of Mayor Jerry Abramson and Greater Louisville Inc., the city’s chamber of commerce.

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“Fifty years of experience since Brown v. Board of Education should teach us that the problem before us defies so easy a solution,” he [Justice Anthony M. Kennedy] wrote.

Schools had a compelling interest in promoting diversity, he said. “Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy said.

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An alternate approach

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The number of school systems using socioeconomic factors to assign students has grown from a handful to about 80 in the past decade, Kahlenberg [Century Foundation’s Richard D. Kahlenberg] said, serving nearly 4.2 million schoolchildren. And the Obama administration’s Education Department has signaled interest in such methods, giving small grants to systems looking to develop diversity programs that comply with the court’s decision.

Louisville’s new plan splits the county into two geographic districts–one having higher concentrations of minorities, lower incomes and less educational attainment–and requires each school in the district to have a mix of students from both.

Parents choose four to six schools as possibilities for their children, but about 20 percent do not receive their first or second choices. That has led to two unsuccessful lawsuits and plenty of angry parents.

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