Students, schools fear end of racial diversity

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky Tue Jul 24, 2007 7:08pm EDT

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - Seventeen-year-old Quantae Williams doesn't understand why the U.S. Supreme Court struck down his school district's racial diversity program.

He now dreads the prospect of leaving his mixed-race high school in suburban Louisville and returning to the poor black downtown schools where he used to get in fights.

"I'm doing good in J'town. They should just leave it the way it is," said Williams, using a fond nickname for suburban Jeffersontown High School, where he's bused every day from his downtown neighborhood.

"Everything is mixed, we get along well. If I go where all my friends go, I'll start getting in trouble again," Williams said as he took a break from his summer job sorting clothing donations for poor families.

Last month's 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court struck down programs that were started voluntarily in Louisville and Seattle, using race as a factor to determine public school placements. The court's decision has left schools across the country scrambling to find a way to protect diversity in their classrooms.

Critics have called the decision the biggest threat to the ideals of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which outlawed racial segregation in U.S. public schools and led to often divisive efforts at many schools, including busing kids from black schools to white schools, and vice versa.

With students already assigned to schools for the academic year that begins in September, few will be immediately affected by the Supreme Court decision. In Jefferson County, officials said it could be two years before a new plan is in place, leaving most students in their current schools.

But with the old rules overturned, many parents, students and officials worry that gains in diversity may be lost for good.

BUSING HARDSHIP

"I know (the busing) is a hardship sometimes for a few parents but in the long run their kids are going to school with a multitude of different types of kids and I think that's society, that's how we should be raised," said Traci Priddy, president of the Jefferson County Parent Teacher Association.

The Supreme Court's new conservative majority declared that taking race into account to integrate a school is just as bad as using race to segregate one. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's sole black member, agreed.

Under Jefferson County's voluntary program, racial guidelines were used to keep black student enrollment at most schools between 15 percent and 50 percent. That often meant busing black kids to suburban schools and trying to lure white students to downtown schools by creating "magnet" programs with exceptional math, computer, language or arts departments.

Some schools remain majority black, however, and some parents resented having their children bused to a lower-performing school in the name of racial diversity.

Crystal Meredith sued in 2003 when her 5-year-old son was refused a place in his preferred schools because he was white.

"Going to the U.S. Supreme Court is not really what I had in mind," Meredith said after the decision. "But when I tried to make sure my son got an education that was the best fit for him, and the Jefferson County Public Schools denied him that because of his race, the Supreme Court is exactly where I had to go to keep my promise."

SEEKING ALTERNATIVES

Jefferson County School Board Chairman Joe Hardesty said the community was disappointed with the ruling but hopes to come up with a new way to protect diversity without mentioning race -- perhaps by considering income or home addresses.

The fact that many U.S. schools remain starkly divided by race despite integration attempts is mostly the result of America's starkly divided neighborhoods, said John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Ohio.

He said many blacks are shut out of better white neighborhoods by systemic housing discrimination and since U.S. school funding is based on local tax receipts, poor neighborhoods beget poor schools.

"Blacks still overwhelmingly support integration," Powell said. "How do you train people to live in a diverse world when they're completely isolated growing up? Clearly it's harmful."

Using income levels as an end-run around the race question has been implemented in some 40 districts across the United States, with mixed results. In small districts, all the children might be poor, making integration impossible.

The threat of lawsuits has convinced other schools to give up on diversity altogether -- a prospect Hardesty rejects.

"The board is not interested in a plan that would resegregate our schools but obviously we have to work within confines of the decision that we have," he said.

Priddy's daughter, Paige, 13, hopes school officials come up with some way to keep her middle school diverse. She said some of her friends are white like she is and others are not.

"One of my best friends is Guatemalan," Paige said as she worked alongside Williams at the clothing charity. "I don't think the color of people makes any difference really but I'd rather go to a multicolored school than just one color."

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