Race Revisited

The U.S. Supreme Court is going to rule on racial quotas in the schools. The decision may shape social policy for decades.
July 2007
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to rewrite the rules on school desegregation, and Joshua McDonald, a Louisville kindergartener, is at the center of the dispute.

Joshua is white. His mother, Crystal, wanted him to attend his neighborhood school. But Louisville has a policy that every elementary school should be at least 50 percent white. Another school elsewhere in the city was having trouble meeting its target, so Joshua was sent across town to help make the numbers work out.

Crystal Meredith sued and, to the surprise of many observers, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the question of racial quotas for elementary and secondary schools. The Louisville case joins another from Seattle on the Court's fall docket after a very unusual months- long debate. It appears to reflect an internal power shift among the justices following the replacement of Sandra Day O'Connor by Samuel A. Alito Jr. And it may signal big policy changes--possibly even a fundamental step away from long-standing rulings on desegregation.

Since the Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, desegregation has become far more than a social goal in American public policy. Educators have embraced it as an essential part of schooling. We've gone from bringing diversity into the classroom to using school diversity to help graduates cope with an increasingly rich social melange. As new battles over immigration have been layered over the old issues of segregation, the debate about diversity has taken on even greater importance.

The fundamental issue in the current cases is whether to use numerical targets to measure success--and to determine enrollment policies. Meredith argues that such targets are arbitrary and cost her son the chance to enroll in his neighborhood school. The school districts counter that targeting is the only way to ensure that the schools are diverse. The lower courts have supported the local school systems, so it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would have taken on the case unless there was an emerging majority in favor of changing the rules and ending numerical targets.

That frames two tough issues. First, if the Court ends targeting, what standard will be used to measure the success of desegregation efforts? Segregated neighborhoods remain in many communities. Allowing more pupils to attend neighborhood schools could permit the reemergence of de facto segregation. Rooting out deep-seated racial patterns was the reason the courts nudged local schools into using targets to begin with.

Some will argue that the nation has come a long way since 1954 and that it's time to move away from arbitrary targets. Others will counter that, without the hammer and the yardstick that targets supply, it will be impossible to prevent a slide back into segregated schools.

Beyond the immediate issue of targeting, the Louisville and Seattle cases could well fuel a fresh battle over equity in school financing. Several states, led by Texas, are fiercely debating whether differences in local tax capacity mean that children in poorer areas get a poorer education.

If the Court comes down hard against numerical targets, it could conceivably end this debate on differences in local tax capacity. Fiscal targeting might become suspect in the same way that racial targeting would be. In that case, support for Meredith's argument could spell relief for state legislators who face excruciatingly difficult decisions about redistributing tax revenue.

But an opposite result is also plausible. If local schools can't use racial targets, the campaign for equality could shift to ensuring that schools in poor neighborhoods have the same resources as those in richer ones.

In short, the case could prompt a huge and prolonged argument. It would be an argument about the kinds of schools Joshua and his fellow kindergarteners will eventually graduate from. But it would also have an impact on the presidential campaign politics of 2008--and serve as a reminder of how the outcome of that year's election could shape the makeup of the Supreme Court and the next generation of American social policy.