June 28, 2007
Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions striking down student assignment plans designed to promote racially diverse schools. In a pair of cases involving challenges to voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville school districts, the court declared that school board plans in each district were unconstitutional, further restricting how public school systems may attain racial diversity. In its 5-4 split decision the court did, however, uphold diversity as compelling interest in kindergarten through 12th grade public education.
“At a time when school segregation is increasing, in the half-century since the Brown decision, a plurality of the current court has condemned minority children to a back seat in the race for life’s chances,” said NAACP National Board of Directors Chairman Julian Bond. “There is hope that the two affected districts and others can find ways to alter their plans and overcome the court’s decision. School districts nationwide—particularly those who have yet to acknowledge their responsibilities to provide an equal education for every child–should embrace the court’s challenge and find ways to make the promise of Brown a present day reality.”
The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court’s judgment. Justice Stephen Breyer announced the dissenting opinion, which was joined by justices Stephens, Souter and Ginsberg.
”We are asking NAACP units across the country to be vigilant in reviewing school integration plans to ensure that there is equal treatment without regard to race and make recommendations that would withstand constitutional challenge,” said NAACP Interim President and CEO Dennis Courtland Hayes. “We can learn from the opinions and work to develop and implement plans across the country that pass constitutional muster. We will continue to pursue tools of integration.”
The NAACP has a plan to address institutional racism in public school systems despite the disappointing court decisions and will unveil those details in coming days, Hayes said.
“This decision reflects a deep ideological division among the justices concerning race and how it may be considered in diversity plans for K-12 public education,” said NAACP Interim General Counsel Angela Ciccolo. ”Voluntary integration has long been embraced by the courts for remedial education and civic purposes. Race may still be considered depending on the circumstances.”
The NAACP, other civil rights organizations and sociologists will be studying the court’s opinion over the summer.
“This split decision is a mixed bag in that it has both negative and positive components,” said Barbara R. Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law that collaborated with the NAACP and others in the cases. “The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to working with local communities and school districts across the country to ensure that they continue to promote diversity in manner that is in compliance with this new opinion.”
As the NAACP and others interpret the 185-page opinion, it appears that race-conscious plans may still be permissible under the right circumstances, e.g., districts must first try race-neutral approaches and cannot use race alone as a factor.
“It is undisputed that racially integrated schools enhance learning environments and prepare children for our increasingly diverse society,” said John Brittain, Chief Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Despite striking down the two local school plans, the Lawyers’ Committee is pleased that a majority of the Court still recognizes the importance of diversity and race conscious measures as a tool to combat on-going school segregation.”
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.