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Court limits school integration efforts

The justices' 5-4 ruling suggests a broader shift on race and education.

June 29, 2007|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a decision that may herald a new era in the long struggle over racial integration in public education, the Supreme Court declared Thursday that officials may not use race to assign children to schools, even if the goal is greater diversity.

Neither white nor black students may be turned away from a particular school simply because of their race, the court said in a 5-4 decision.

The decision opens the door to legal challenges to integration strategies that have been adopted in school systems across the country, including Los Angeles Unified School District -- strategies that limit the number of white and minority students who may attend particular schools.

Thursday's ruling did not directly address any programs other than the Seattle and Louisville, Ky., policies before the court, but the language of the majority opinion suggested others could face close scrutiny.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
School integration: A Section A article Friday about the Supreme Court ruling on racial diversity in public schools quoted Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as writing in the majority opinion: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." That quote was from a section of the decision that did not receive a majority of votes from the justices.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion. Public schools must "stop assigning students on a racial basis," he said.

Some lawyers following the case said the ruling could spell trouble for racial guidelines in as many as 1,000 school districts across the nation. But each district's program differs, and it is unclear how sweeping the effect of Thursday's ruling will be.

The ruling also raised questions about how the high court, with its conservative bloc strengthened by the addition of Roberts as chief justice in 2005, will deal with the legacy of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ignited half a century of struggle over busing and other efforts to promote racial integration in schools.

The decision, coming on the last day of this year's term, highlighted the fact that a conservative bloc led by Roberts prevailed in nearly all of the major cases that came before the court. On abortion, religion, campaign finance and now school integration, the chief justice has put together a five-member majority to move the law to the right.

Roberts cited the decision in Brown in support of his opinion in the current case. Just as Brown struck down forced segregation nationwide, he said, the court is now declaring that students may not be classified "based on the color of their skin."

The court's four liberal justices accused the majority of turning its back on Brown and the promise of racial integration.

"This is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret," Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in a long dissent delivered in the courtroom.

"It is not often so few have quickly changed so much," he said at one point.

In a separate dissent, 87-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens noted how far the court had moved in his long tenure. "It is my firm conviction that no member of the court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision," he wrote.

The sharpness of the dissent suggested that the liberals' concern went beyond the immediate decision -- which applied to two relatively atypical situations -- to apprehension about the direction of the court and how it might deal with other issues of race and education.

What Thursday's decision might imply for the future was complicated by the fact that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who supplied the decisive fifth vote, wrote a separate opinion asserting that school officials could use means other than racial categories to promote integration.

Kennedy said school officials should not "ignore the problem of de facto resegregation in schooling." They may adopt "race-conscious measures to address the problem in a general way," he said.

He endorsed such policies as locating new schools in racially mixed neighborhoods, and shifting attendance boundaries to encourage more diverse classes.

His opinion also appeared to cover free-transfer policies that allow students to move from a more segregated to a more integrated school. The Los Angeles school board adopted such a transfer policy after its mandatory busing program ended in the early 1980s.

In part because of Kennedy's separate opinion, school officials and civil rights lawyers had mixed reactions to the ruling.

Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Assn., said he was disappointed with the decision, but added: "I see hope, because Justice Kennedy left open the possibility of the use of race to achieve classroom diversity."

But Kennedy "did not give us a lot of guidance on how the plan must be devised," Negron added.

The winning lawyer for the parents in Seattle emphasized that the ruling protected minority and white students.

"This case was about protecting all children, regardless of skin color, from race discrimination," said Harry Korrell, the Seattle lawyer for a group known as Parents Involved in Community Schools.

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