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Inside The Law

Inside the Law

Supreme Court Reviews Race in Assigning Schools

The group Parents Involved in Community Schools sued Seattle School District No. 1 in 2000 after the founder's daughter was one of 300 students denied their top high school choice because of a racial "tiebreaker." A U.S. district judge in Seattle and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Seattle integration program and said that the district had a "compelling interest in securing the educational and social benefits of racial diversity." But now, predominantly white parents in Louisville, Ken. and Seattle are arguing their schools' integration programs in front of the Supreme Court.

The two cases leave concerned parents wrestling with voluntary integration programs that use race as a factor in assigning students to specific public elementary and secondary schools. The Supreme Court is asking whether the two programs, which have been upheld by federal appeals courts until now, are "acceptable" moves toward student diversity or just a way for the schools to set illegal racial quotas.

Parents are arguing that the programs are denying children admission to first choice schools not to remedy past discrimination but to achieve a racial balance, which violates equal treatment guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The two districts have responded by saying that school integration-along with its educational and social benefits-justifies a careful, limited use of race in deciding which school a student should attend. Attorney Michael Madden, who represents the Seattle school district, says race is only one factor and is only used in some instances as a tiebreaker when too many students apply to one school.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated 14th Amendment rights. Legal experts are saying the five conservative justices who comprise the majority of the current court will likely vote the same way. The court's four liberal justices have indicated, however, that they see no constitutional problem with school districts considering race to have individual school populations approximate the entire system's racial makeup.

"It's a fundamental disagreement about the meaning of the Brown case," says Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty Race Research Action Council.

The court's ruling could not only affect a thousand public school systems with voluntary integration plans but also those that face demographic change, like Long Island's 124 racially stratified districts. Striking down integration policies there would essentially end any efforts to desegregate the school system.

The Bush administration has sided with the parents, stating that race-based student assignments can only be used to "eliminate the vestiges of past discrimination," not to maintain integration. But Theodore Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says that accepting the Bush argument would be a "repudiation of Brown."

Thousands of schools throughout the country are still almost completely segregated and, according to the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, as many as 1,000 districts still voluntarily pursue integration using race in some form. The court has not yet issued an official ruling.

Report Analyzes School Segregation

A November 2006 Center for American Progress report, Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises, considers the educational impact of racial segregation in more than 22,000 schools across the country enrolling more than 18 million students. Previous studies on the subject have never included more than a few thousand students, making this study arguably the largest ever conducted on the consequences of segregation.

Some of the report's findings include:

--Blacks and Hispanics learn more in integrated schools;

--Minorities in integrated schools perform better in college attendance and employment;

--Minority students have lower achievement in segregated schools.

Given the Bush administration's commitment to raise achievement in minority schools, these findings raise serious questions about the administration's opposition to the school integration programs in Seattle and Louisville. If the goal is to raise achievement, then opposing desegregation is counterproductive.

Chamber Survey Endorses NCLB in High Schools

A substantial number of U.S. business organizations think the future is bleak for tomorrow's leaders. The Education and Workforce Development initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently conducted a survey on education reform, and more than 85 percent of the 571 business organizations that responded felt that the No Child Left Behind law should be extended to high schools, with more than half saying that current K12 curricula do not adequately prepare students for college and the workforce. Since efforts to improve public education directly impact communities and organizations throughout the country, the survey was conducted to gain a better understanding of how the business community views the U.S. education system.

Respondents to the survey represented a variety of business categories including association, education, small business, and nonprofit, more than half of which indicated that school systems need a great degree of input from the business community to set the state standards for college and workforce readiness. And 90 percent of respondents felt the need to continue to raise the bar on achievement expectations to keep the United States competitive with other high-achieving nations. The complete survey is available at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Web site.

Baltimore Paraprofessionals Face Midyear Reassignments

In compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, 115 paraprofessionals in the Baltimore County Public School System are being reviewed for reassignment to new positions, and many will be transferred to different schools within the district.

The federal law set a deadline of June 2006 for all instructional paraprofessionals in Title 1 schools-those with high-poverty populations-to meet a "highly qualified" requirement, otherwise they would be deemed ineligible to hold instructional positions in such schools. Instructional paraprofessionals typically support the teacher in the classroom, whereas those working as non-instructional paraprofessionals serve in a variety of capacities outside the classroom. Instructional paraprofessionals who pass a state basic skills test or hold an associate's degree are considered highly qualified.

Under the direction of interim CEO Dr. Charlene C. Boston, a BCPSS leadership team has been established to review the individual cases of 75 paraprofessionals who are not highly qualified for instructional positions in Title 1 schools. The district has been working to certify them as highly qualified by February 1, at which point those who are still not highly qualified will be apprised of other opportunities.

Additionally, 40 non-instructional paraprofessionals previously in schools serving a wealthier student body have recently been certified highly qualified instructional, and on January 8 reported to new school assignments at Title 1 schools.

"We applaud the willingness of our new instructional paraprofessionals to accept this promotional opportunity in support of our instructional program," says Dr. Boston.

The decision to reassign the paraprofessionals to different positions within the district was made out of concern for federal funding. Baltimore school officials say not complying with the federal law could cost them millions of dollars.

Instead of reassigning non-highly qualified paraprofessionals to new positions closer to the June deadline before the new school year, district officials decided to wait midyear to give the educators more time to prepare for and pass the state test.

The leadership team remains optimistic. "We will continue to be diligent in our efforts ... to be sure that all students in all schools are served by highly qualified staff," says Dr. Boston.