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Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

Published: June 28, 2007

On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court issued a split decision on integ­ra­tion in public schools in the consol­id­ated cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jeffer­son County Board of Educa­tion (PICS).  The Court held that the volun­tary integ­ra­tion programs used in Seattle and Louis­ville were uncon­sti­tu­tional, in part because race was used in a mech­an­istic way to determ­ine where pupils were assigned to public schools.  Draw­ing on the seminal case of Brown v. Board of Educa­tion, the Court rejec­ted what it called racial balan­cing for its own sake.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on its own behalf and on behalf of the Center for Consti­tu­tional Rights, Demos, the National Voting Rights Insti­tute and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educa­tion Fund in support of the prerog­at­ive of the schools to insti­tute plans to main­tain racial diversity.  This brief argued that integ­rated public schools serve as the fora for educat­ing young Amer­ic­ans to become toler­ant citizens in a plur­al­istic nation.

In PICS the Court stated that whether a govern­ment used race for posit­ive or negat­ive reas­ons, strict scru­tiny must be applied by review­ing courts.  In equal protec­tion juris­pru­dence, strict scru­tiny requires that the use of race be justi­fied by a compel­ling govern­mental interest that is narrowly tailored to achieve that goal. 

The Court broke 4–1–4 on key aspects of the case, with Justice Kennedy penning the swing vote opin­ion.  While Kennedy agreed that the programs used by Seattle and Louis­ville did not pass consti­tu­tional muster, Kennedy wrote [a] compel­ling interest exists in avoid­ing racial isol­a­tion, an interest that a school district, in its discre­tion and expert­ise, may choose to pursue.  Kennedy also found that [d]iversity, depend­ing on its mean­ing and defin­i­tion, is a compel­ling educa­tional goal a school district may pursue.  Kennedys decision opens the possib­il­ity for school districts to continue to battle the racially isol­ated schools that occur when schools reflect the resid­en­tial segreg­a­tion in the neigh­bor­hoods that surround them. 

Because of the 4–1–4 split, PICS may have a similar effect as the Bakke case, which found that affirm­at­ive action was not consti­tu­tional in the case before the Court, but nonethe­less was used to justify affirm­at­ive action programs that fostered diversity in higher educa­tion for a quarter of a century.

What both the Roberts plur­al­ity and Kennedys concur­rence failed to prop­erly grapple with was the demo­cratic role played by public schools in educat­ing the major­ity of Amer­ican citizens.  The original Brown v. Board decision addressed precisely this point.  It recog­nized the import­ance of educa­tion to our demo­cratic soci­ety and specific­ally noted that public educa­tion is a prin­cipal instru­ment in awaken­ing the child to cultural values, in prepar­ing him for later profes­sional train­ing, and in help­ing him to adjust normally to his envir­on­ment.  Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).  This notion was also echoed in a latter case which found,

“School author­it­ies. . .  might well conclude, for example, that in order to prepare students to live in a plur­al­istic soci­ety each school should have a prescribed ratio of . . .students reflect­ing the [racial] propor­tion for the district as a whole.” Swann v. Char­lotte-Mecklen­burg Bd. Of Ed., 402 U. S. 1, 16 (1971).

The major­ity discussed public schools as if they exis­ted in some void divorced from the rest of the nation.  Only the dissent recog­nized the dele­ter­i­ous effect that allow­ing public schools to re-segreg­ate would have on our body politic.  Justice Breyer, writ­ing for the dissent, noted the demo­cratic values at stake in the case. 

“[T]here is a demo­cratic element: an interest in produ­cing an educa­tional envir­on­ment that reflects the plur­al­istic soci­ety in which our chil­dren will live.  Swann, 402 U. S., at 16.  It is an interest in help­ing our chil­dren learn to work and play together with chil­dren of differ­ent racial back­grounds.  It is an interest in teach­ing chil­dren to engage in the kind of cooper­a­tion among Amer­ic­ans of all races that is neces­sary to make a land of three hundred million people one Nation.”

With Justice Thomas concur­ring opin­ion, which concludes that no demo­cratic element can support the integ­ra­tion interest, PICS is likely to be read as aban­don­ment of both Browns inclus­ive ideals as well as Browns acknow­ledge­ment that the condi­tions under which Amer­ic­ans learn as chil­dren will effect the future inter­ac­tion of adults in Amer­icas demo­cracy.

After this decision, any de facto segreg­ated public schools are left with few tools to address this prob­lem head on.  Rather, they must attempt to remedy the prob­lem indir­ectly.  In the mean­while, millions of school chil­dren in integ­rated schools may find their school assign­ments shuffled in a disrupt­ive manner in the coming years as states adapt their programs to use race-neut­ral means to main­tain diverse schools.