School Districts Can Use Race in Decision-Making, Feds Say

Courtney Williams's picture
Monday, December 5, 2011

Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Seattle's school-assignment racial tiebreaker, the federal government issued new guidelines affirming that districts can consider race to help integrate schools.

The guidelines issued Friday warned that students in racially isolated schools โ€” which are on the rise nationally โ€” often lag behind their peers at more diverse schools.

Seattle Public Schools administrators expressed surprise at the new voluntary guidelines, saying that for now they have no immediate plans to change school-assignment policies.

Civil-rights advocates hailed the guidelines, released jointly by the departments of Justice and Education, as an important tool that should help school districts reverse decades of worsening segregation in the nation's public schools.

"It's the two great federal departments agreeing on explicit interpretations of the Supreme Court decisions, and telling education authorities around the country they have latitude to act within the law," said Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He added that "we are more segregated than we've been since before 1968 โ€” we've lost all the progress we made since the '60s, and we're going backward each year."

Opponents, however, blasted the guidelines as an effort by the Obama administration to skirt the Supreme Court's decision.

"The DOJ (Department of Justice) memo is trying to take the perspective that we need to inject race in school," said Joshua Thompson, a staff attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which joined in the lawsuit against Seattle's policy. "Their intent should be to limit the use of race instead of trying to find ways to get around the Supreme Court."

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