ACLU to Support Seattle School Student Assignment Plan in Case Before Supreme Court

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court this fall will hear the appeal of a ruling that upheld the Seattle School District’s use of race as factor in assigning students to schools. The ACLU of Washington will file a brief in the case, supporting the district’s policy as a way to prevent racial segregation.

The court announced on June 5 that it will hear two cases dealing with the issue of race and public school assignments, Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District and Meredith vs. Jefferson County [Kentucky] Board of Education.

The ACLU-WA has argued in favor of the Seattle School District’s policy in friend-of-the-court briefs. The ACLU believes that it is fully consistent with the Constitution for the district to take race into account for purposes of school assignment, to ensure that students enjoy the educational benefits of learning in a diverse environment.

"Seattle Public Schools isn't denying anyone access to a public-school education," said Aaron Caplan, a staff attorney with the ACLU-WA. "The question is, are we going to try to have diverse and desegregated schools?"

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October 2005 in favor of the district’s policy. The court said increasing diversity at public secondary schools is a compelling governmental purpose, and that the district’s plan was narrowly focused for that purpose.

“The Seattle School District’s limited use of race in assigning students to high schools is a valid and effective response to the racial isolation that results from Seattle's housing patterns,” said Paul Lawrence, a cooperating attorney with the firm of Preston Gates & Ellis, LLP who drafted the ACLU briefs in support of the district’s plan. “As a result, Seattle school students can obtain educational benefits that result from an enhanced exchange of ideas, and the socialization benefits that will help students work and live together as adults. A student's diverse experience now will make better citizens later.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has permitted race-conscious admission programs for public universities when a school had a compelling interest in ensuring the educational value of diversity and a narrowly defined plan that avoided quotas or mathematical formulas. The Court of Appeals ruled 7-4 that the Seattle plan meets these criteria.

Seattle considers three factors when assigning students to schools: 1) whether the student had a sibling in the school; 2) whether the student’s race helped balance the racial makeup of the school; and 3) student proximity to the school. This system allowed students from minority neighborhoods to attend popular schools in majority areas, and vice versa. For example, two high schools popular with families across the city are Garfield (in the traditionally African-American Central District) and Ballard (in traditionally white Ballard). Without the policy, white students would find it harder to attend Garfield, and minority students would find it harder to attend Ballard.