Considering Fairness in Affirmative Action in Schools

When Crystal Meredith moved to Louisville, Ky., and tried to enroll her 5-year-old son in kindergarten a couple blocks from their house, officials pointed her elsewhere, to a school that was a 90-minute bus ride away.

A school that was closer to their home, officials told her, couldn't accept another white student like Joshua that year.

Meredith, a single mother, wasn't looking for a fight. After driving Joshua across town to school every day, she decided she'd bypassed the closer school long enough.

She sued and is now at the center of the most significant legal battle over race to reach the Supreme Court in years.

"Joshua was denied entrance to a school for no other reason than racial classification," said Teddy Gordon, Meredith's attorney. "There was room at the school. There were plenty of empty seats. This was a racial quota."

Meredith and other parents who sued the Louisville school district argue that the racial assignment plans amount to unconstitutional race discrimination.

The school district contends that it's not discriminating against anyone, but instead is trying to maintain racially balanced and integrated schools for the benefit of all.

The justices will hear arguments in the case on Monday, as well as in a similar case from Seattle.

The cases are the first major battle over race for the newly constituted Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, and they could set important guidelines for the use of racial preferences in the future.

Civil rights advocates say nothing less than integrated public education is at stake.

They say a ruling against the school districts would undermine the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that outlawed separate systems of education for black and white schoolchildren.

"The question before the Supreme Court now is whether it will be illegal or unconstitutional to voluntarily maintain school desegregation, school integration, in the 21st century," said Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It is an easy question. It is what is left of Brown vs. Board of Education."

But opponents say they are only demanding that all children should be treated the same, just as Brown vs. Board of Education demanded.

"It's whether or not, across the United States, we should continue to use race to categorize and classify kids within student assignment plans as to where they attend public schools," Gordon said.

The Louisville school district adopted its plan in 2001, and it requires schools to seek a black student enrollment of at least 15 percent and no more than 50 percent.

Those guidelines apply primarily at the elementary school level and in admissions to special programs, such as magnet schools.

The case from Seattle raises similar legal issues to the one from Louisville, though it involves the city's public high schools.

Under its plan, students can choose to attend any of the city's 10, four-year high schools unless they are "oversubscribed" with more students than the school can accommodate.

In that case, the school district looks at several factors when assigning students, including whether their race would contribute to a "racial imbalance" in the school.

A group of parents challenged the school district's assignment plan after their children were not assigned to the high schools of their choice.

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