On June 28, 2007, a sharply divided United States Supreme Court invalidated student assignment plans in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky that were designed to promote racial diversity and to address racial isolation in K-12 education. By a 5-to-4 vote in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. I and McFarland v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Court struck down voluntary integration plans under the "strict scrutiny" standard applied to race-conscious policies challenged under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and ruled that the plans were not narrowly tailored to the interests asserted by the school districts.
The Supreme Court's ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools is disappointing and troubling for a number of reasons. First, the ruling significantly limits the use of race by school districts voluntarily seeking to integrate their schools, at a time when racial isolation and resegregation are increasing nationwide. Second, when viewed in the context of the Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling marks a sharp turn in the Court's historical commitment to addressing racial segregation in public schools. Third, the ruling sends a strong signal that a majority of the Court's current membership is highly skeptical of race-conscious policies designed to promote equality and the integration of public institutions. Indeed, four members of the Court, including its two newest members, appear ready to strike down any deployment of race designed to advance equal
Nevertheless, because of the voting alignment of the Justices in these cases and the limits of the Court's rulings, school districts retain the ability to employ race-conscious measures designed to integrate their schools. Five of the Justices endorsed the compelling interests in reducing racial isolation and in promoting educational diversity in elementary and secondary schools, and the opinions of those Justices provide guidance on how school districts might proceed in designing constitutionally permissible policies. Moreover, the Supreme Court as a whole made clear that Grutter v. Bollinger, its 2003 ruling upholding the use of race to promote student body diversity in higher education, is good law.
This paper examines the Seattle and Louisville cases and discusses their impact on K-12 education and constitutional doctrine. The analysis is divided into three parts. Part I examines the Justices' opinions in Parents Involved in Community Schools and discusses the constitutional boundaries for voluntary race-conscious integration policies established by the Court. Part II discusses the implications of the cases in creating and implementing K-12 policies designed to avoid racial isolation and to promote educational diversity. Part III assesses the impact of the cases on equal protection doctrine and race-conscious policy making more generally.
10 Rutgers Race & L. Rev. 297 (2008-2009)