When Public Schools Aren't Color-Blind

Louisville's racial guidelines keep its schools from having too many or too few black students. Most parents like the policy. Will the Supreme Court strike it down?

Stephanie Brown admits that moving from a small Kentucky town into sprawling Louisville made her a "very paranoid" mother-- so much so that she won't let her kids play in the front yard unless she's with them. But she willingly puts Joe, 8, and Julianna, 6, on a bus every day for the 75-min. ride to a school in a rundown, mostly black neighborhood. The bus picks her kids up in their mostly white suburb at 7:30 a.m. and doesn't bring them back until 5 p.m. "It was a very hard thing to put my baby girl on a bus and let her go out into the world with people I don't know," says Brown, who is white.

Some 58,000 children crisscross Jefferson County on school buses in much the same manner, with 1 out of 7 of these kids traveling an hour or more each way. What's more, most of their parents--Brown included --are happy with the system. So much to-ing and fro-ing is a result of the school district's generally popular racial guidelines, which aim to keep the percentage of African Americans in any one school from falling below 15% or rising above 50%. The district as a whole is about one-third black.

Parents aren't simply bystanders in this numbers game. They can apply for the schools they want their child to attend--many have magnet programs that make it worth going that extra mile--and 92% of families wind up with their first or second choice. Even if some don't get what they ask for, race is never the sole factor in how assignments are made. "We look at choices first, we look at siblings, we look at capacity," says Pat Todd, the district's student-assignment director. "Race is way down the list."

The system, which has been in place for a decade, has made Jefferson County one of the most integrated school districts in the country. But if Crystal Meredith, a single mom who was told her son could not transfer to another elementary school because he is white, has her way, the whole thing will be dismantled. And plenty of critics agree that it should be. Meredith and others contend that the guidelines amount to an unconstitutional quota system. So Jefferson County finds itself in an ironic position. After years of court-ordered desegregation, the school district will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court next Monday, arguing that it should be allowed to use the same system voluntarily.

Jefferson County is one of two cases that will help the Supreme Court decide how--or if--race can be used to deploy kids across a school district. The court next week will also consider whether Seattle can continue to use a student's race as one of several tiebreakers when too many kids seek admission to the same high school. Taken together, these cases could represent, as Georgetown law professor James Forman puts it, "the last gasp of the integration movement."

The Jefferson County dispute has in some ways been brewing for more than a half century, ever since the Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed school segregation. The busing battles that followed this landmark ruling were the stuff of civil rights lore. But in 1991 the court ruled that school districts could abandon that unpopular strategy and return to neighborhood schooling, even if that meant some schools would resegregate. That's what happened in many districts, and the proportion of black students attending nonwhite-majority schools has increased over the past dozen years from 66% to 73%. In some parts of the country, Latino segregation is even higher, according to Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. Many school districts have given up trying to break up racial concentrations and instead are working to deal with the achievement gaps that accompany largely segregated schools-- a de facto return to the separate-but-equal idea that Brown v. Board of Ed. sought to abolish.

Jefferson County has worked hard to avoid this first by racially gerrymandering school- attendance zones in the 1980s and then by instituting its 15/50 "managed choice" program in the '90s. This system has maintained not only integrated schools but also community peace. Despite all the long bus trips--the average ride for Jefferson County students is about 45 min.--77% of Jefferson County parents agreed that guidelines should be used to ensure diversity, according to a survey conducted in 2000 by the University of Kentucky. The district also assiduously tracks the percentage of the county's school-age children who attend public school, and in recent years, when private schools were gaining students nationwide, Jefferson County's public schools were inching up in "market share," from 76% in 2001 to 80% last year.

To keep things moving in that direction, the school district emphasizes customer service. In many neighborhoods, the buses stop every fifth of a mile. "Legally, we only have to put a stop every two miles, but we wouldn't be very popular if we did," says Mike Mulheirn, who oversees the school district's transportation system. "The seats," he notes, "are well padded."

All of this is paying off where elected officials feel it most--at the ballot box. School-board members who are pro-guidelines keep getting re-elected. Two years ago, when Meredith's lawyer, Teddy Gordon, ran for the school board, promising a return to neighborhood schools, he came in--as guideline advocates like to point out-- dead last. "I don't care if my children go to school on the moon as long as they are getting a good education," says Ronald Thomas, who lives downtown and sends his three children to school on a half-hour bus ride via the Interstate.

But critics offer a lot of complaints about the system, not the least being that some just find it galling. Why should schools that are more black than white be inherently suspect, even if they don't reflect the racial breakdown of the district as a whole? "It doesn't make sense," local PTA-board member Dreema Jackson says of the guidelines. "It's O.K. for the minority to be between 15% and 50%, but if you flip those percentages, a school is no longer diverse?"

Worse, by stressing racial balancing, critics say, you take the focus off improving educational outcome. Thirty years of seating black students next to white ones has failed to close Jefferson County's achievement gap. Black high school students still trail their white counterparts by 25% in reading-proficiency tests and by 34% in math. The gap is closely linked to factors like parents' education level and income, which no amount of school balancing is likely to fix. "We have the most integrated school system in the country," says Carmen Weathers, a retired Jefferson County schoolteacher. "That sounds good on a business brochure, but it has nothing to do with education."

Weathers, who is black, favors a return to schools that are all or mostly black because he thinks the teachers would be more attuned to the particular needs and learning styles of some black students. But where are those teachers supposed to come from? Raoul Cunningham, who heads the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., points out that it is harder to recruit experienced teachers to work in largely minority schools. Critics "blame all the ills of the current system on desegregation," he says. "Desegregation did not cause the achievement gap."

One challenge facing the Jefferson County school district is to convince the Supreme Court that racial integration not only does no harm but offers concrete benefits that would be lost without the guidelines. To help make this case, 553 social scientists--including professors at Harvard, the University of Hawaii and myriad institutions in between--have submitted a friend- of-the-court brief detailing how racial integration in schools reduces prejudice and prepares students to enter a diverse workforce. More support will come from a study to be released this week showing that blacks and Latinos perform better academically in integrated schools. Based on an analysis of No Child Left Behind data conducted by Doug Harris, an assistant professor at Florida State University, the study reveals that test scores of minority students in high-minority schools fall about 4 percentile points a year behind those of minority students in lower-minority schools.

Meredith's lawsuit seeks an end to the guidelines (and $25,000 in damages for her son, who was eventually admitted to the school that originally rejected him and is now a fourth-grader there). While dozens of civic organizations, the Louisville Chamber of Commerce and five former Secretaries of Education have sided with the school district, the Bush Administration has taken up Meredith's cause. The Solicitor General submitted a brief arguing that schools should not be in the business of racial balancing and that even Brown v. Board Ed. declared that public schools should ultimately admit students "on a nonracial basis."

The district fears that if the guidelines are overturned, the schools will quickly return to sorting themselves by race. PTA-board member Mary Myers is so concerned that she is organizing a bus trip to Washington so Louisville parents can protest outside the Supreme Court next week. "What in the world are we trying to go backward for?" she asks. In a sign of what might be coming, a judge in 2000 forced Jefferson County to stop applying the district's guidelines at an inner-city magnet school because the career academy offers unique programs--like legal services and veterinary science--that students can't get anywhere else. Since then, Central High, a historically black school, has seen its white population shrink from 51% to 18%. And this shift could mark the beginning of a vicious cycle. "The greater the racial isolation," says district administrator Pat Todd, "the more difficult it is to recruit children of different races."

Whatever the merits of Meredith's case, even her supporters can admit she is hardly the ideal plaintiff. She didn't attempt to sign her son up for kindergarten until August, despite numerous radio and TV announcements and signs posted in day-care centers and Laundromats reminding parents to apply for their choice of school by March. By the time Meredith (who declined to be interviewed for this article) did apply, most of the seats had been allocated. Cheryl Wirth, a waitress at Waffle House whose son attends a magnet school, thinks this alone ought to be enough to dispose of the case. "It's like life," she says. "You gotta stay on top of things." Myers, like many mystified locals, can't believe the suit has even gone this far. "In the end, [Meredith's] son is where she wants him to be," she says. "Would you dismantle a whole system over that?"

With reporting by With reporting by Deirdre van Dyk / New York

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