These two cases, being decided jointly, address the issue of whether local school districts can make decisions based on race as a method of ensuring racial diversity, and avoiding segregation, in public schools. In 2000, a parental coalition called Parents Involved in Community Schools sued the Seattle School District, arguing that its policy of allowing all students to apply to attend any district high school, but using race as a tiebreaker when a high school received more applicants than it could accept violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The district court upheld the tiebreaker plan under federal and state law. After sending the case back to the state court for a ruling on state law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on en banc review in 2005 found that the school district had a compelling interest in securing the educational and social benefits of racial and ethnic diversity, and in attempting to end racial segregation in its high schools by ensuring that its assignments do not simply replicate Seattle’s segregated housing patterns. It also concluded that the District’s Plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its compelling interests.
In June 2006 the Supreme Court granted review and will hear Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 together with Meredith v. Jefferson County Bd. Of Education, a similar case from Kentucky. The court will address the questions of how the Equal Protection rights of public high school students are affected by the jurisprudence of the University of Michigan admissions cases Grutter and Gratz, and whether racial diversity is a compelling interest that can justify the use of race in selecting students for admission.
AAUP joined an amicus brief to the Supreme Court with the American Council on Education and many other higher education organizations. The brief notes that “[w]hile there are important differences between higher education and the elementary and secondary school settings at issue in these cases, a broad consensus exists among educators at all levels that diversity is essential to their mission and that government should defer to good faith efforts to attain its educational benefits.” The brief also argues that “programs to promote racial and ethnic diversity in K-12 education advance …efforts to achieve excellence in higher education.” Specifically, it argues that respect for the institutional competence and judgment of educators, along with a recognition of the well-established benefits of student diversity, counsels in favor of giving deference on this issue to educators in the same way the court did to higher education in the Michigan cases. In making this argument, it discusses the compelling governmental interest in student diversity, drawing on a broad range of research showing the benefits of racial diversity at all levels of education.
Status: The brief (pdf) was filed October 11, 2006. In June 2007, the Supreme Court issued a decision striking down both school districts’ desegregation plans, though without overturning Grutter. The decision suggests that universities seeking diversity will need to conduct individual assessments and consider a variety of indicators of diversity, not limited to race. It remains to be seen precisely how this case will be applied in the higher education context.