Equal Educational Opportunity
The promise of racially integrated public schools, mandated by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, spawned decades of civil rights activism and court-ordered desegregation plans. By the mid-1980s, significant racial integration had been achieved across the U.S.; however, demographic data indicate that since then the public schools have become less integrated over the last fifteen years resulting in "resegregation." Minority students are less likely to attend school with white students than in the past and a larger percentage of the school-aged population is poor. In an effort to retain and ensure integrated schools, districts have developed their own voluntary plans; however, the Supreme Court decision in June 2007 that struck down plans in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky are forcing schools across the country to re-evaluate their efforts. Similar rulings are expected over the next several decades from a more conservative Supreme Court. School districts are looking for alternative criterions for school assignment other than race. Some school districts have successfully used socioeconomic status as a factor to integrate their schools, and are offering families new educational options.
Keywords Amicus Curiae; Brown v. Board of Education; Charter Schools; Civil Rights; Desegregation / Segregation / Resegregation; Equal Protection Clause; Equal Educational Opportunity; Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; Integration; Magnet Schools; Resegregation; Strict Scrutiny; Unitary Status; Vouchers
This article discusses equal opportunity in education in the United States. One of the most contentious and seemingly irresolvable problems in American public education is the provision of equal educational opportunity. Racial integration of the public schools, once a primary strategy of achieving racial equality in our society, has been diminished over the last decade as school district desegregation plans are being challenged in the courts. This paper covers some of these cases, including the Supreme Court decision in June 2007 that struck down two school district's voluntary desegregation plans and how school districts are now re-evaluating their programs and seeking new ways to achieve diversity. Some districts are attempting to integrate students of different socioeconomic rather than racial backgrounds. Others are using non-coercive offerings such as vouchers and charter or magnet schools to appeal to students and parents seeking alternative means to a quality education.
The Legal History of Equal Educational Opportunity
The legal basis for all of the equal education litigation is the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This clause dictates that the laws of a state, not the Federal government, must treat an individual in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstances. "The equal protection clause is not intended to provide "equality" among individuals or classes but only "equal application" of the laws. The result, therefore, of a law is not relevant so long as there is no discrimination in its application. By denying states the ability to discriminate, the equal protection clause of the Constitution is crucial to the protection of civil rights" (Legal Information Institute, 2007).
The Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 is recognized as the seminal case that opened the door to racial desegregation in schools. Volumes have been written about this important case that promised integration and equal educational opportunities, and ushered in a thirty year period of subsequent legislation, federal court decisions, and civil unrest. For the most part, the fallout of school integration occurred during the 1960s and 1970s after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. On the whole, integration goals were achieved. Ironically, a little noticed accomplishment was that the South, long the most resistant and most segregated region, "… remained for a third of a century the nation's most integrated" (Orfield, 2007, p. 14).
Support for forced integration began waning during the 1980s. Court orders for desegregation plans expired, and, for the most part, school district integration strategies became voluntary. Orfield notes that "five of the last seven Presidents actively opposed urban desegregation and the last significant federal aid for desegregation was repealed 26 years ago in 1981" (2007, p. 8). The past ten years have seen a new era of court decisions, a tremendous influx of Hispanics into the school system, and major societal shifts including the fruition of the white flight to the suburbs.
Brown v. the Board of Education
A series of Supreme Court decisions and legislation drove the integration of U.S. public schools for thirty years beginning with Oliver L. Brown et.al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) et.al. The 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision disallowed racial segregation of schools, and in 1955, after a second hearing, the Court ordered desegregation to proceed with "all deliberate speed."
It was not, however, until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that aggressive desegregation and integration began to occur throughout the country. The law prohibited discrimination in public places, and outlawed discrimination in employment and education. Now, the executive branch of the federal government was empowered to enforce integration.
In the thirty years after Brown, there was a stream of significant Supreme Court cases that advanced desegregation in the nation's schools. In order to meet racial integration goals, students in some areas had to be bused from their neighborhoods to more distant schools in their districts. The Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education decision of 1971 ruled that busing was constitutional.
Norwood v. Harrison (1973) ruled that States could not avoid the mandates of Brown by providing financial aid to private schools that discriminate based on race. This was followed by Keyes v. School District No. 1. Denver, Colorado which said that schools outside of the South which engaged in actual practice (de facto) segregation were as subject to the mandates of Brown as the schools in the South that were segregated by law (de jure).
The issues started to become more ambiguous in the mid-1970s as the courts began to draw lines defining how far civil rights actions could go. Milliken v. Bradley (1974) was significant in that it said that federal courts could impost inter-district desegregation remedies on a city and its suburbs without proving that school district boundaries were drawn with the intention to discriminate. The decision emphasized local control of schools and essentially exempted suburbs from participating in integration.
Although the case pertained to higher education, Bakke v. Regents of the University of California impacted affirmative action planning across all strata of education and employment. The ruling held that setting racial quotas is unconstitutional, but did not rule out race-based admissions completely. It provoked a debate about setting goals for diversity in education that was not resolved until the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger) that limited race-based admission may be justified.
Supreme Court decisions made in the early 1990s marked the demise of court-ordered desegregation plans. In the Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991), a divided Supreme Court determined "that school official needed only to establish that they were operating with the Equal Protection Clause and that it was 'unlikely [they] would return to [their] former ways." (Daniel, 2005, p. 63).
Freeman v. Pitts (1992) followed on this trend when a Georgia school system sought final release "from judicial supervision of its desegregation efforts." The Court ruled that release from judicial rulings can be incremental; i.e., a school district can be released from the portions of its plan that have been met and must be held to the remaining criteria until "unitary status" is achieved. (Daniel, 2005, p. 63).
The last case in this sequence was Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) which pertained to local control of the schools. The Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional prescribed remedies set by a federal district court that were deemed to go beyond its power. This and the three previous cases all mark the period of the disappearance of court-ordered desegregation plans. They made it evident that the plans were meant as temporary fixes to resolve a problem; once school districts were found "unitary," judicial oversight would end.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. (2007) is a turning point in Supreme Court decisions. The ruling overturned lower court decisions that upheld the voluntary desegregation plans of the Louisville (Jefferson County), Kentucky and Seattle, Washington school districts. The impact of the decision remains to be seen, but experts recommend using other variables than race to achieve diversity in schools
Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, Kentucky) operated an integrated schools system as a result of a 1975 Federal court decree. When released from the decree twenty-five years later, the school district decided to continue to ensure integration by using its own voluntary integration guidelines, which were written in 2000 ("Is the Jefferson County Plan," 2007, p. 9). These guidelines specified that each elementary school was to be at least fifteen-percent and no more than fifty-percent black. As a result of this policy, the Jefferson County school district had one the most racially balanced school systems in the U.S.
In Louisville, a white mother brought suit against the school district, claiming that, because of this policy, her son was unable to attend the elementary school closest to their home, which, she said, violated her son's rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was decided in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in 2004 by Judge John G. Heyburn, who ruled that the Jefferson County Board of Education plan was constitutional. He was guided in his opinion by the recently decided Supreme Court cases of Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) which upheld "race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Michigan Law School and University of Michigan, College of Literature, Science and the Arts" ("Is the Jefferson," 2007, p. 9). The judge's decision drew on strict scrutiny standard that has typically been applied by the Supreme Court in discrimination cases, which holds that "racial classifications must further a compelling governmental interest and must be narrowly tailored to meet that interest" ("Is the Jefferson," 2007, p. 10).
The situation in Seattle was similar to that in Louisville. Complainants in Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle Schools sued the school district, believing that their children were not accepted into their first choice high schools because they were white. The Seattle schools had never been charged with court-ordered segregation and the district's integration guidelines were wholly voluntary. They were adopted in 1998 to prevent "segregation that was caused by the self-segregation in housing patterns in the area" (Bullock, 2006, p. 9).
Numerous amicus curiae ("friends of the court") briefs were submitted...
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