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Court Revisits Discrimination at Schools

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- The Supreme Court is on shaky ground after taking a couple of cases that deal with race and public schools -- a subject around which the justices should tread lightly.

Setting the stage for a decision that could affect hundreds of school districts across the country, the court agreed to hear challenges to "racial balancing'' plans in Louisville and Seattle. Under such plans, districts openly take into account the race of students in order to maintain racial balance in the schools.

In Louisville, where the school district is one-third nonwhite, every school from kindergarten to 12th grade is required to try to achieve a student enrollment that is at least 15 percent -- but not more than 50 percent -- black. In Seattle, where a similar plan is limited only to high schools, race can be considered as one of several factors including where students live and whether they have siblings attending a particular school.

There are people out there who find this brand of racial engineering mighty offensive. But what's new about that? There are always going to be those folks who believe integration went too far. They may have gone along with desegregating schools after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, but when it came to going further and integrating the student bodies through methods such as busing, parents and others fought back.

Some are still fighting. The Louisville case began with a lawsuit brought by Crystal D. Meredith, a white parent whose son, Joshua McDonald, did not receive a requested transfer to attend kindergarten in a school that was trying to maintain a sufficient number of black students.

In the minds of some, Joshua McDonald was discriminated against because of his race. To them, this makes him the moral equivalent of James Meredith, who in 1961 was denied entry into the University of Mississippi because he was black.

That's nonsense. Meredith was pushed aside by an institution that had an all-white student body and which had never admitted a black student. McDonald and his mother can't say that. The same school that turned him away took in many white students, and it has no history of barring whites because they're white. In fact, in cities such as Louisville, the history is all about public schools and other institutions denying opportunities to blacks because they were black.

This isn't an argument about the validity of school integration plans. It's one about honesty and common sense.

A similar argument was made by a federal judge, for whom I worked as a misguided pre-law student. Alex Kozinski, a libertarian on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals whose views tend to be respected by conservatives, voted to uphold the Seattle plan as one "that gives the American melting pot a healthy stir without benefiting or burdening any particular group.'' While it may be disappointing that a student is denied his choice of school because of racial balancing, Kozinski wrote, it "carries no racial stigma and says nothing at all about that individual's aptitude or ability.''

Some people won't buy that. They're the same folks who, instead of bringing lawsuits on their children's behalf, might try sitting them down and explaining that the world doesn't revolve around them and that sometimes society has greater objectives to achieve than ensuring that all the boys and girls get to go to the school of their choice.

What's really sad about all this is that the Supreme Court is stuck in the past. It's opening up old wounds when, at the grass roots, the real reformers are busy fighting new battles.

The warriors include former Education Secretary Rod Paige, who talks about African-American kids being tracked away from college prep courses, dumped into special education classes and turned into pawns by having their test scores inflated through bogus accounting methods. Or the African-American mothers in Cleveland and Milwaukee who stood up to the liberals who run the educational bureaucracy and demanded that their children be given vouchers to attend private schools.

What they are seeking is greater accountability, more educational freedom, an end to the excuses and a shifting of priorities so that schools serve the interests of the students who learn there rather than the adults who work there.

This is the new civil rights movement. And, if you want to understand it, you shouldn't waste your time questioning the gains of the old civil rights movement.

It's a lesson that the Supreme Court would be wise to heed.


(c) 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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 Ruben Navarrette
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