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Supreme Court challenges Seattle schools

  Legal Business  -   POSTED: 2007/06/29 14:38

A splintered Supreme Court ruling on school diversity leaves the Seattle School District where it has foundered the past six years - casting about for an acceptable way to maintain diverse and equitable schools. The 5-4 decision struck down Seattle's racial tiebreaker as well as an integration plan in Louisville, Ky. Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed with this result - along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito - but departed from the majority opinion in a significant way. Their ruling, Kennedy wrote, was "at least open to the interpretation that the Constitution requires school districts to ignore the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling. I cannot endorse that conclusion. To the extent the plurality opinion suggests the Constitution mandates that state and local school authorities must accept the status quo of racial isolation in schools, it is, in my view, profoundly mistaken."

This page agrees. The legacy of past racial discrimination created a racially and economically segregated city on the edge of Puget Sound. Seattle has made long strides toward diversity but today's astronomical housing prices make further progress difficult.

The 46,000-student Seattle School District bears the brunt of these divisions. The district is divided along the Ship Canal into largely white, prosperous North End schools and, in the South End, heavily minority and often resource-poor schools.

Roberts' opinion, signed by the conservative justices, does not restrict a district's choice of where to build schools, where to add academic programs and how to allocate money, leaving open the possibility that these might be done with a purpose of racial diversity. Kennedy's opinion explicitly allows such a purpose.

Kennedy adds that if the district judged an applicant as an individual, "that might include race as a component." But what they cannot do, Kennedy said - and this is now federal law - is to place a racial label on a student and to assign the student to a school by "mechanical formula."

Seattle no longer does that. But the School Board will have to rise to the challenge of crafting a student-assignment plan that is fair and isn't blind to the inequality built along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Thursday, School Board President Cheryl Chow said the district has been extending high-quality programs such as the International Baccalaureate. The IB, which was available initially at Ingraham High School in the North End, is being extended to Sealth High School and Denny Middle School in Delridge. Foreign-language immersion, available initially at Stanford International School in Wallingford, will also be available at Concord Elementary in South Park.

The district's funding formula already favors South End schools and the needs are not satisfied. South End schools spend more on counselors, caseworkers and translators, and bonuses are offered to attract top teachers to work there.

The goal is excellence at every school. "We don't have that now," Chow said. The district needs to keep working on that problem, and in a way that is inclusive to all races and cultures.


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