Friday, June 29, 2007

Are We Reverting To "Separate But Equal?"

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court rejected public school assignment plans based on race in Seattle, and in my hometown of Louisville, KY. (Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education) This decision was split 5-4. I'm not familiar with Seattle's plan, but having been educated in JCPS, I am familiar with their plan of integration. Back in 1975 the Supreme Court ordered JCPS to desegregate their schools. Since then, racial quotas of no less then 15% and no more than 50% were applied to each school, with the classification simply being "black" and "other." In 2000 though, the US District Court ruled that school system ended the desegregation order, although JCPS continued the use of racial quotas voluntarily. Furthermore, it ended the use of race as a factor in school admittance at magnet schools. Later, in 2003, admittance based on race and gender at traditional schools was ended by the US District Court. Which gets us to yesterday's 5-4 decision.

Why was this assignment plan struck down? "The school districts have not carried their heavy burden of showing that the interest they seek to achieve justifies the extreme means they have chosen--discriminating among individual students based on race by relying upon racial classifications in making school assignments." They failed to show that the use of racial classifications were not "narrowly tailored" to achieve a "compelling" government interest. In the present cases, race was not considered as part of a broader effort to achieve "exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints." Although the school districts argued that other factors affected assignments, when it came into play race was the decisive factor. The plans only employed a limited notion of diversity, either "white/nonwhite" for Seattle or "black/other" for JCPS. The "minimal effect" of racial classifications questions need for them at all. They also failed to show consideration of other than explicit racial classifications to achieve their stated goals. Four of the five judges in the majority further concluded that it was unconstitutional because the plans were tied to to each district's specific racial demographics rather than any pedagogic concept of the level of diversity needed to attain the asserted educational benefits. Also, the use of racial classifications promotes the notion of racial inferiority. Justice Kennedy differed from the four in that there are instances that race can be taken into account. He said the problem could be addressed in a general way without treating each student in a different fashion based solely on a systematic, individual typing by race. (For a more detailed summary and complete text of the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions, go to Find Law.)

First of all, I predict that JCPS will try gerrymandering school districts in order to try and achieve diversity that it can no longer do with racial quotas. Justice Kennedy left room for this in his concurring opinion. However, I see some problems arising from this. To speak quite frankly, white, wealthy East-Enders (the East End in Louisville is richer and more white, versus the West End which is poor and predominantly black) will never tolerate their school district being changed to downtown or the West End. (For those of you from Louisville, e.g. going from Ballard to Central) I think they will stop short of burning effigies of the School Board members, but not by much. Most likely there will be an exodus of students from public to private schools. (On the plus side, if they do revert to neighborhood schools, they can save taxpayers money by having kids walk to school instead of taking the bus, which will also make them healthier and leave more fuel for the rest of us to consume.)

Why not have a voluntary school assignment plan based off a race. When applying for a school, have a box on there where you can check "Yes you may reject my child from his or her choice of school and require that they ride the bus for up to several hours each day across the county in order to achieve racial diversity. I waive my right to sue." or "No, if you determine where my precious child goes based of a race I will sue the hell out of you." When you put it that way, the choice is clear, who wouldn't want racial diversity?

So JCPS, you want to achieve racial diversity but can no longer look at an individual's race. You could gerrymander school districts but will face a massive backlash from the East-Enders and others. Here's a solution we can all be happy with. Build new schools in the East End and then close all the others ones. Then you can change the districts around for racial balance. Wealthy East-ender parents won't get mad that their child has to go to school in a ghetto, and poor West-Ender children will be graciously welcomed into schools benefiting from being in affluent neighborhoods. Plus, the East-Enders are more likely to drive their children to school, and we would not want to inconvenience them each day by making them drive across town. Thus, you achieve racial diversity under Kennedy's suggestion of carefully choosing school districts and placing new schools. Although I guarantee you'll get sued again, this time you should have the support of 5 members (the 4 dissenting justices + Kennedy) of the Supreme Court and easily win. Of course, I would never support such a plan to move all schools to the predominantly white rich East End. After all, building these new schools would cost way too much money.

It seems to me that the underlying problem is not racial imbalance in the schools, but housing patterns. Of course the problem of addressing this is people voluntarily choose where they live, although of course part of it is where can people to live. The government can't make people move to balance out races. Perhaps the government could require when approving new developments mixed income housing. And this might work in the East End, but it would never work in the West End. Developers aren't going to build higher income housing in poor neighborhoods, no one would want to live their and the property value was just be dragged down. And it would only work to a limited extent in richer neighborhoods since if you build in a nicer neighborhoods the price of even supposed lower income housing will probably rise naturally, likely pricing those who its suppose to attract out of the market. I say all this to arrive at the point of there is no real, constitutional solution that I can see of creating forcing racial diversity in communities to come about.

In light of this, perhaps what needs to be focused on is simply making all schools good schools, no matter if they're in rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, predominantly white neighborhoods, predominantly minority neighborhoods, etc. We don't need to white wash the problem by shuffling under-performing minority students around to hide them in Standardized Test averages. (Speaking from experience, my college-credit classes in high school in JCPS was almost entirely white. Something wasn't working.) Of course that's easily said, but not done. We need to speak frankly on this subject, saying what we all know but what no politician has the courage to say out of fear of being called a racist and being voted out of office. In general, the wealthier and middle-class parents are more likely to be interested in their child's education, while poorer parents are less likely to be interested, and so their kids do poorly. I speak in general, there are rich parents who neglect their children and their are poor parents who want to see their children do better than they did. Let the facts be said, blacks are more likely to be poor than whites. Why is this? A vicious cycle over generations that needs to be broken. I bring this up because there is only so much that can be done by school officials and teachers to ensure a child's good education. If the parents aren't interested then their kids probably aren't going to put forth the effort. I don't know how to get parents interested, but this is a factor that needs to be taken into consideration. This is something I see as a problem with the current school accountability system. It assumes that its the schools fault, and never the parents and child's fault. Thus, a school in a poor area is going to have under-performing students, and even good teachers are going to get blamed, and the state or Feds are going to come in and replace all the teachers and make all these changes that don't address the underlying problem. Now there are exceptional teachers in bad schools that get students to perform, and I applaud them. And there are teachers who couldn't care as long as they're getting their paycheck and should be fired. But I'd say in general this applies.

Now I don't have a solution for fixing housing patterns or getting parents interested in their child's education. (Well, I suppose we could get rid of social security and then they'll want their children to not drop out so they can support them in their old age, although this will also encourage more progeny.) I don't know how we can break this cycle of under-performing generation after under-performing generation. But I want to get the debate started, and not just focused on whether we should have racial profiles, affirmative action, school busing, and all the rest. And I know I've said some things that will get people angry, but facts are facts and if we don't have a discussion with facts we might as well shut up. For the record, no we are not returning to "separate but equal" schools, since schools aren't equal now and any separation is the result of where people choose to live and not government action. I agree with Chief Justice Roberts that "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."


Blogger Sheri said...

Yes! You are of like mind, my friend.

Sat Jun 30, 08:41:00 AM EDT  

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