Robert Barnes of the Washington Post begins his look at the impact of the Roberts court’s 2007 decision on efforts to achieve racially balanced schools through the race-based assignment of students this way:
Chief Justice John G. Roberts made it sound so simple that day in 2007 when he and four other members of the Supreme Court declared [Louisville’s] efforts to desegregate its schools violated the Constitution. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
But life has been anything but simple for school officials here. They have steadfastly – or stubbornly, depending on the point of view – tried to maintain integrated classrooms despite the court’s command that officials not consider race when assigning children to schools. . . .
The final product, which integrates schools based on socioeconomic factors rather than on race alone, has proven to be more complex and costly than the previous system. Long bus rides and complaints from a vocal minority of parents have threatened popular support of the plan [note: the vocal minority seems to be well on the way to becoming the majority — see below]. The school board has delayed implementation. The legislature is contemplating whether to guarantee parents a spot in their neighborhood schools
It is clear from the rest of Barnes’ article that the complexity plaguing the Louisville school system stems not from Chief Justice Roberts’ decision, but from the unwillingness of the Louisville school bureaucracy to accept its wisdom. This becomes explicit later in the piece, when Barnes quotes the Superintendent of Louisville schools, Sheldon Berman, as follows:
If we’re going to create a vital democracy, and see our schools as the seeds of that democracy, we need schools that maintain diversity. And I think the court missed that. I thought that the Roberts decision was extraordinarily narrow, and unrealistic about the real circumstances in schools.
Berman’s words are best viewed, not as meaningful critique of the Roberts decision (Shelley Berman I know, who the hell is Sheldon Berman?), but as evidence that the school system’s use of “socioeconomic” factors is simply an attempt to mask the very race-based decisions the Supreme Court has held unconstitutional. Unfortunately, though, Berman has a legal leg to stand on. For Justice Kennedy (the fifth vote holding Louisville’s race-based assignments unconstitutional), did not agree with the Chief Justice’s truism that discrimination is best stopped by not discriminating. He took the position that schools have a compelling interest in promoting diversity, but that race is only one component of diversity, along with “demographic factors, plus special talents and needs.” Thus, Louisville’s convoluted system – any judicial blame for which belongs to Justice Kennedy, not Chief Justice Roberts — might survive a future legal challenge.
In the end, it may be the political process that puts Louisville’s convoluted system, along with Louisville students and parents, out of their collective misery. The Post reports that the head of the local school board, who is up for re-election this year, is feeling heat for her support of the new plan. She now says:
A great idea like diversity can get damaged by the reality of having to try to implement something. We’ve got to look at the plan objectively and see if it is helping student achievement. That’s the bottom line.
This revolutionary idea seems to be catching on. Wake Country, North Carolina is thinking seriously of scrapping its use of socioeconomic factors as a means of artificially increasing diversity (i.e., discriminating on the basis of race). And Seattle, Washington, whose race-based system was overturned along with Louisville’s, has decided not to seize on the Kennedy loophole, but instead to return to a system of neighborhood schools, augmented by magnet schools and special programs scattered throughout the city.
It’s pleasant to think that the political process may finally be able widely to bring about what the Supreme Court perhaps fell just short of managing – an end to race-based school assignments and a restoration of neighborhood schools.