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Justices Reject Race as Factor in School Placement


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today was the last day of the Supreme Court term and the court finished with a bang - an important decision on school desegregation.


I'm Anthony Brooks.

The court rejected school diversity plans in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky. In a few minutes, we'll talk to parents in each of those school systems.

BRAND: First, though, Dahlia Lithwick is here now. She's the legal analyst for Slate.com and a regular here on DAY TO DAY. Dahlia, another 5-4 decision. Walk us through the case and how the ruling came down, please.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst, Slate.com): Sure, Madeleine. This was a pair of appeals. One came out of Seattle, Washington. The other was from Louisville, Kentucky. And they both had to do with systems that used race as a factor in trying to sort of integrate these schools that were sort of de facto segregated.

The Seattle plan would use race as a, quote, "tie-breaker" to try to keep the Seattle high schools close to the district's racial makeup. The Louisville plan was not for high schools; it was for elementary schools, public schools. And it also used race as a factor, again, to try to keep the schools roughly corresponding to the racial makeup of the district.

The court today struck down both plans even though they had been upheld by the lower courts of appeals.

BRAND: And Dahlia, does this then invalidate the 53-year-old, I believe, 53-year-old decision, Brown vs. Board of Education?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, I don't know if it invalidates it, Madeleine, but it certainly turns it on its head. Both the majority opinion and the key dissenting opinions really sort of tethered themselves to Brown. And in the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the five more conservative members of the court, says this is strictly faithful to the spirit of Brown. And he says, quote, "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." In other words, this is the sort of colorblind principle that Brown stood for.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens literally said it was, quote, "a cruel irony to claim that this was faithful to the spirit of Brown." It meant rewriting in the most profound way one of the court's most seminal precedents. So I suppose it really turns on the question of what you think Brown stood for. The dissenters felt so strongly that Brown stood for the idea that we had to get America to be reintegrated, and I think the majority felt very strongly for the principle that Brown meant colorblind is colorblind.

BRAND: And what would be the practical impact starting tomorrow, I guess, on schools in Seattle and Louisville and the hundreds of districts across the country that are operating under desegregation plans?

Ms. LITHWICK: That's awfully hard to know right now, Madeleine. There's a 185-page opinion to wade through, and, trust me, lawyers are doing that. But Justice Breyer in his dissenting opinion cites the hundreds of school districts around the country that have literally hundreds and hundreds of plans that involve bussing, that involve all sorts of race-conscious, voluntary measures to reintegrate the schools.

So I think for the short term there's just going to be a lot of lawyers thinking very hard about what this means for them and, as Breyer says, an awful lot of litigation of what used to be settled law.

BRAND: That's Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.com. Dahlia, don't go away. Stick around. We'll come back to you a little later in the program to wrap up the term.

BROOKS: We're going to hear now from two parents who've had a lot riding on these two cases. First, to Kathleen Brose in Seattle, who won her suit before the Supreme Court today. She's white and was among several parents who sued the Seattle School District in 2000. She argued that the district violated state and federal laws when it considered the race of her 14-year-old daughter and denied her a place in three different schools, including the one closest to her home.

Ms. KATHLEEN BROSE (President, Parents Involved in Community Schools): She was separated from her friends. Many of her friends ended up going to private schools. She went to a school that was 30 minutes away from our home by driving by personal car or about 40 minutes from a school bus; or if she wanted to do after-school activities, it would take up to two hours to get home on to or three public buses.

BROOKS: And so, when she didn't get in to the school that she wanted to on account of her race, where did she go to school? What happened to her?

Ms. BROSE: She was assigned to her fourth choice, which was clear across the city, it was called Franklin - it is called Franklin High School. And she decided not to go there because we naively thought there was an orchestra at the school. My daughter played the cello at the time. And there's no orchestra there, and that was very important to her.

You know, and this is on of our arguments with the school district, is that they didn't look at the student's academic needs. And every high school has a different curriculum, but they didn't look at her academic needs. They just looked at her skin color and said we're going to place you over here because we need you over here.

There's a certain amount of diversity in our neighborhood and the kids that were categorized non-white were able to get into the local schools, and the kids who were categorized white weren't able to. And those kids knew that. It affected friendships. Once I filed the lawsuit, I had some people unhappy with me and it affected some of my friendships. You know, talking about race makes people uncomfortable.

BROOKS: Well, Kathleen, let me ask you about that, about race. What of the argument that this policy was designed to ensure diversity in the schools? What did you say to folks who would raise that argument with you?

Ms. BROSE: Well, we have diversity in our schools, and we have people from all over the world living here.

BROOKS: So your argument is that Seattle schools are integrated enough?

Ms. BROSE: They are integrated enough, and you know what, they are becoming more integrated all the time.

BROOKS: I'm wondering, your daughter is 22 now, I'm wondering, have you had a chance to talk to her about today's decision by the Supreme Court?

Ms. BROSE: No, she's still sleeping. It is early in Seattle right now.

BROOKS: Can you tell us what you expect her to say? What her reaction would be?

Ms. BROSE: Well, she's gone on with her life. I mean, she'll be glad that we won and, you know, she wouldn't want another student to go through what she did. There's enough angst in a teenager's life. They should be able to go to a school that's reasonably close to their home, and they should be able to with their friends, and, you know, they should be able to easily be involved in after-school activities, and that's the way schools used to be.

BROOKS: All right, Kathleen Brose. Thanks for talking to us today.

Ms. BROSE: Okay, thanks.

BROOKS: I appreciate it. That was Kathleen Brose, a Seattle parent who sued the Seattle public schools to stop using race in the school assignment process.

BRAND: And now for another opinion we turn to Mary Myers(ph). She's a mother in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the school systems the court addressed today. Now, Mary Myers, you were not part of the case, but you followed it closely. What's your reaction?

Ms. MARY MYERS: Well, I guess I'm just like the rest of the country. I'm trying to digest this opinion and what happens from here. I'm personally committed to the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling, and I feel that we, as a country, speak to diversity and this just contradicted our own policy.

BRAND: You have two children?

Ms. MYERS: Yes, I do.

BRAND: How old are they?

Ms. MYERS: My daughter is 16 and my son is 13.

BRAND: And will this ruling affect them directly?

Ms. MYERS: They are in magnet schools - I don't know.

BRAND: You grew up in Louisville. What do you think this will mean down the road for your city?

Ms. MYERS: Like I say, the rest - I'm just digesting all this. Being 49 years old, I remember when all things weren't as equal in education. No way do I ever want to see us go back to that.

BRAND: So when you grew up and went to school, what did the schools look like?

Ms. MYERS: I started out in parochial school and Catholic school, and we were pretty diverse. Then I went over into public schools for a while and it was mostly African-American.

BRAND: So it was pretty segregated.

Ms. MYERS: It was pretty well segregated.

BRAND: Right. And now, what do the schools look like?

Ms. MYERS: Oh, the schools now, I mean, you just see all kinds of nationalities, the children, black, white, it's more than black and white. It's just everybody.

BRAND: Well, is there a way, do you think, to achieve that, to achieve true integration in the schools, without bussing?

Ms. MYERS: I don't think see it. I don't see it. Our neighborhoods are not desegregated. And as I speak (unintelligible) socio-economically, no. It's just - there are diversity in some neighborhoods, but not a whole lot.

As we go towards our east, it's predominantly white neighborhoods. My son, he went to a east end school farther away. I live in the east end, too, but this is farther towards the east. And without those buses rolling, I'd sit out there and picked them up every day. You are not going to see very many minorities in those schools.

This is the price that we pay to have a fairer education, and I think it's a price that people are willing to pay. Our children are fine with this. Leave these children alone; let them go to school together. It's more than after they come out to learn their education, they've got to go into the workforce and work together. They will see all kinds of people. I mean, we have to stop this madness and let these children grow up in desegregated schools. They're going into a desegregated workforce. Well, this country is on a bad road with this. It's a bad decision.

BRAND: Mary Myers of Louisville, Kentucky, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Ms. MYERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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