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Professional Opinion

Addressing Diversity's Gray Areas

The new Supreme Court desegregation policies leave some unanswered questions.

On the very last day of its 2007 term, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that will affect schools, school board members, administrators, students, and parents for years to come. The Court struck down the voluntary integration plans of the Seattle and Louisville school districts in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District #1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education.

The ruling, perhaps the most important since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, has left a lot of questions unanswered. The Seattle and Jefferson County public schools both took the race of students into account, although in a slightly diff erent way, when determining which schools they would attend. The Court's ruling has forced school districts to reexamine how they assign students to schools while still maintaining a diverse learning environment. The following questions and answers will help school district administrators begin to address their concerns.

What does the plan mean for school leaders working on assignment plans?

We know that when children bring different histories to the classroom, everyone benefits. Research shows that students who receive their education in a diverse setting get a better education than those in a segregated setting. The dissenting justices agreed that the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment are undeniable. Justice Kennedy said in his concurring opinion, "A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation. Likewise, a district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population."

When children bring different histories to the classroom, everyone benefits.

While the Court's decision makes clear that race cannot be the deciding factor in whether a student is admitted to a particular school, the Court did leave room for districts to take race into account.

How quickly does my school district need to act to ensure legal methods of student assignment are in place?

No timeline has been established for compliance. School districts will find it difficult to make changes in student assignments for the current school year. What school districts can do easily is consult with their school attorneys before making a decision on a hasty policy. A deliberate, methodical review of student assignment plans can help to minimize the racial aspects of the plan and ensure that long-term goals are in line with the Court's decision.

What are some other ways that school districts can ensure diverse classrooms without using race as a deciding factor?

The Court encourages school districts to use "serious, good faith considerations of workable race-neutral alternatives," but it offers no explanation for what those are. NSBA recommends that school districts consider a race-neutral plan, using commissioned studies and research to inform the process, and involve the community.

By tying diversity to educational goals, school districts ensure that the maximum educational benefit is achieved, rather than simply ensuring a demographic solution.

How will this ruling affect the reporting of annual yearly progress in racial subgroups that is required under the No Child Left Behind act?

NCLB's reporting requirements are not the same type of classification as addressed in the Court's decision. The reporting is used to ensure that all groups within a district are making academic gains, and the law does not require that schools make student assignment decisions based on racial or ethnic classifications.

Are school districts finding success using race-neutral strategies to ensure diversity?

There are a number of examples that NSBA has followed closely, which are detailed in our FAQ document for school boards, An Educated Guess: Initial Guidance on Diversity in Public Schools after PICS v. Seattle School District. The guide offers practical policy applications for school districts. An Educated Guess presents five different examples of successful school district programs that are already in place. They include making student assignments based on socio-economic status, a lottery, attendance zones, parental choice, and a hybrid of parental choice, lottery, and socio-economic status.

In addition to An Educated Guess, NSBA also has published, in conjunction with the College Board, Not Black and White: Making Sense of the United States Supreme Court Decisions Regarding Race-Conscious Student Assignment Plans, which can be a valuable resource for school districts as they seek to improve educational outcomes and ensure equal opportunity by enhancing school-based student diversity. Both are available on the NSBA Web site at

Anne L. Bryant is executive director of the National School Boards Association.