The school districts of Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky adopted systems of racial classifications in determining school assignments. Parents Involved in Community Schools (Parents Involved) brought suit.
Achieving racially balanced school districts does not amount to a compelling government interest that satisfies strict scrutiny.
The Seattle School District was never officially segregated by law. In 1998, the district adopted the plan at issue for assigning students to its 10 high schools. The plan allows incoming 9th graders to choose from among any of the district’s high schools, ranking however many schools they wish in order of preference. If too many students list the same school as their first choice, the district employs a series of “tiebreakers” to determine who will fill the open slots at the oversubscribed school. The first tiebreaker selects for admission students who have a sibling currently enrolled in the chosen school. The next tiebreaker depends on the racial composition of the particular school and race of the individual student. This second tiebreaker comes into play if a school’s enrollment deviates by more than 10% from the district’s overall balance of approximately 41% white and 59% nonwhite students.
Jefferson County Public Schools operates the public school system in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2001, Jefferson County adopted the voluntary student assignment plan at issue. That plan requires all nonmagnet schools to maintain a minimum black enrollment of 15% and a maximum black enrollment of 50%. The plan covers 97,000 students, roughly 34% of whom are black and the remaining 66% of whom are mostly white. The requirements of this plan sometimes blocks initial assignments and transfers that would otherwise occur.
Parents Involved in Community Schools (Parents Involved) brought suit challenging these racial classification systems to determine school enrollment, arguing that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
May a public school classify students by race and rely upon that classification in making school assignments?
No, a public school may not classify students by race and rely upon that classification in making school assignments.
To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. De facto resegregation is on the rise. It is reasonable to conclude that such resegregation can create serious educational, social, and civic problems. Given the conditions in which school boards work to set policy, they may need all of the means presently at their disposal to combat those problems.
The dissent claims that the school districts are threatened with resegregation and that they will succumb to that threat if these plans are declared unconstitutional. But racial imbalance is not segregation.
The plurality opinion is too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race. 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 profoundly mistaken.
It is well established that when the government distributes burdens or benefits on the basis of individual race classifications, that action is reviewed under strict scrutiny. Namely, the school districts must demonstrate that the use of individual racial classifications in the assignment plans here under review is “narrowly tailored” to achieve a “compelling” government interest.
In evaluating the use of racial classifications in the school context, the Court’s prior cases have recognized two interests that qualify as compelling: 1) remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination and 2) the interest in diversity in higher education.
First, remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination is not a compelling interest here. Seattle public schools have never been segregated by law and Jefferson County public schools have been found to have “eliminated vestiges associated with their former policy of segregation.” Jefferson County accordingly does not rely upon an interest in remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination in defending its present use of race in assigning students.
Second, unlike the cases pertaining to higher education, the Defendants’ plan involves no individualized consideration of students, and it employs a very limited notion of diversity (i.e., “white” and “non-white”). The Defendants’ goal of preventing racial imbalance thus does not meet the Court’s standards for a constitutionally legitimate use of race. The plans also lack the narrow tailoring that is necessary for race-conscious programs. The Seattle School District’s tiebreaker plan was actually targeted toward demographic goals and not toward any demonstrable educational benefit from racial diversity. It also failed to show that its objectives could not have been met with non-race-conscious means.