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Educators Encourage Supreme Court To Condone Racial School Districting

By Lyle Denniston

Raising the stakes on a Montgomery County, Maryland, schools case now being reviewed by the Supreme Court, a group of educational organizations has urged the justices to allow students across the nation to be assigned to schools based on their race as a way to promote cultural diversity.

“This case,” the groups argued, “presents a critical legal issue: can a local school board take intentional steps to create a diverse learning environment?”

The friend-of-the-court brief, by the National School Boards Association and 16 other groups, attempts to convince the court that much more is at stake than a race-based transfer policy in Montgomery County.

The brief seeks to persuade the court to hear the case and, more broadly, to move beyond the era when race was routinely forbidden as a basis for school assignment because the aim was to maintain segregation. Instead, the brief encourages the court to inaugurate a new standard by which “educating children in a diverse setting” provides a different justification for assignments based on race.

For the past decade, the court has moved increasingly to outlaw the use of race as a basis for government policies. That trend has generated a new controversy in which “racial diversity” goals have come under broad attack from conservative advocacy groups who argue for a “colorblind” society.

The court has not yet moved to outlaw the use of race in education, outside the segregated-schools context.

With the filing of the education groups’ brief, that case takes on the aura of a wider-ranging effort to treat elementary and secondary schools as a unique form of government activity.

The brief argued: “While the court has voiced misgivings about allowing the government to weigh race in other settings, the special context of kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education raises issues that warrant review by this court.”

The group contended that “it is an accepted role of the public schools to prepare America’s children to participate in our democracy.”

Noting that lower courts have issued “a tangled web of contradictory rulings” on whether race-based student assignments in public schools are unconstitutional, the organizations said the confusion deprives millions of school children “of important, firsthand lessons in diversity that would aid each personally and benefit the nation.”

In Montgomery County, school officials had grown concerned that race-neutral school assignments were contributing to racial isolation. The school board adopted a policy to forbid student transfers to new schools if they would lead to a greater concentration of one race at either school.