(NOTE: Due to a server problem, this post was corrupted and its comments lost. The post has been recreated but the comments cannot be restored. Apologies.)
The U.S. Supreme Court ended its term on a suitably contentious note Thursday, a 5-4 decision
to invalidate race-based school assignment programs in Seattle and Louisville. Conservatives are predictably pleased
, and liberals predictably perturbed
I suppose I'm more perturbed than pleased, but it does strike me that the Court may have reached the right outcome in the particular cases involved, albeit for the wrong reasons and with unfortunate consequences. The ruling has little immediate or direct effect on Nashville's public schools, where explicit racial criteria for school assignment are not presently in play, but it could figure into future reform efforts.
The Court's plurality opinion (written by Chief Justice Roberts with three others in tow) didn't offend me by characterizing the school plans in question as having very small effects, and as overly focused on the race of a particular individual. Even many liberals agree (this one, anyway) that using a person's race as the sole
deciding factor for an important social outcome (like admission to a sought after school) is dodgy. The Court sorted that out in a reasonable way in the university affirmative action cases decided in 2003 - rejecting the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions formula that assigned points by race, but accepting its law school process that considered race qualitatively as one among many factors.
To the extent that the Court now believes that this logic can be applied in K-12 school assignment, yesterday's outcome doesn't alarm me all that much, and on that score I part company with many on the left. The Seattle paper today reports
on how school officials there are already rethinking their school assignment process along these lines. There are also some arguments
worth considering that school systems can achieve diversity aims with socioeconomic rather than racial criteria.
But the Roberts opinion did offend me by cultivating denial that there are educational and social benefits that flow from diversity rather than racial isolation, and by rejecting the idea that as a society we have a compelling interest in avoiding that kind of isolation. Roberts' opinion substituted hyperbole for thoughtfulness, as when he wrote that "accepting racial balancing as a compelling state interest would justify the imposition of racial proportionality throughout American society." This kind of straw-man argument confirms suspicions on the left that the Court's conservative wing has an agenda, doing what it must to reach an ideologically preferred outcome and then filling in the logic behind it. No one is advocating racial balancing for its own sake, with no interest in the social and educational benefits that follow, as a compelling state interest.
Fortunately, that silliness didn't carry the day because the fifth justice who made up the majority, Anthony Kennedy, wrote a concurring (and in legal terms "controlling") opinion limiting the anti-integration zeal of Roberts and buddies. Kennedy's money passage: "This nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity for all of its children. A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation, an interest that a school district, in its discretion and expertise, may choose to pursue."
For Nashville, the effect of the ruling is minimal at present because the public schools do not have in place (to my knowledge) any specific racial tests or tiebreakers for school enrollment. Conceivably, if the racial mix at the city's academic magnet high schools is significantly out of proportion with the rest of the system, then it might have been worth considering a racial tilt in admissions, but the Court's ruling yesterday makes that untenable. It does, however, leave open the possibility of an admissions system to magnets that is more nuanced to achieve more diversity. Currently the system is that everyone over a certain minimum academic test score can enter the pool, with random selection out of that pool.
I do wonder if yesterday's ruling will have implications for plans
by MNPS director Pedro Garcia to experiment with single-sex schools. The Court Thursday said with clarity that it is illegal to say to a kid: you cannot attend this school solely because of your race. So will it be ok to say you can't attend a school solely because of your sex?
One last point. Reading the Roberts decision, as well as some of the right-wing spew
that followed it, you get the feeling that these folks have little if any idea of the actual on-the-ground challenges confronting urban public schools in twenty-first century America. Solutions to the the intractable problems of urban public education are not advanced by wishful thinking. Praising the Court's ruling yesterday, the editors of the National Review asserted
that "schools are becoming more racially diverse without any government intervention." The facts