by Tanya Clay House, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Since the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in 1963, we have supported integration and diversity in public schools, following the mandate of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Brown affirms that a free and just society requires diversity in our public schools and equal opportunity for all children.
Integrating schools is one of the best ways to bring educational excellence and equity to children of all racial and economic backgrounds. Studies show superior academic achievement by African American and Latino children educated in racially diverse schools and students of all backgrounds in integrated schools develop more positive attitudes and relationships with members of other races. Research also shows that non-minority students benefit from diverse and integrated learning environments.
Further, it is easier to achieve resource equity among schools when they are racially and economically heterogeneous.
New recent federal guidance documents, issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, provide K-12 schools and universities with the information and tools they need to leverage diversity to achieve educational excellence for all children. The guidance documents highlight the benefits of school diversity and outline constitutional approaches for public school districts, colleges and universities to voluntarily pursue racial integration and diversity.
The federal guidance documents – Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools and Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Post-Secondary Education – correct the Bush Administration’s guidance, which recommended schools not consider race at all in student assignment planning.
The Lawyers’ Committee agrees with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Departments and the majority of the Supreme Court which stated, our “nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” Most major corporations, the military and other institutions have embraced diversity because they recognize that they can leverage a mosaic of talent and perspective to enhance their entire workforce and become more competitive. It is time that our schools do the same, to prepare all children to thrive in our increasingly diverse society and global economy.
In the most recent Supreme Court opinion on public school student assignment, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (PICS), Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose concurring opinion reached conclusions supported by a majority of the Court, indicated that school systems could pursue the compelling interests of racial integration and diversity through, among other means, “race conscious” measures such as citing new schools and drawing school attendance zones based on consideration of the demographics of different neighborhoods and recruiting students or faculty with consideration of race.
Forward-looking school systems are already putting such measures to use. For example, Jefferson County, Kentucky responded to the PICS decision by creating a new student assignment system that looked at the racial composition, income levels and education levels of different neighborhoods, and drew school attendance zones that integrate students according to all these factors. While Jefferson County is still improving the plan, it is succeeding in maintaining diversity in its schools. The Lawyers’ Committee highlights this program in: Sustaining Public School Diversity; an Innovative Strategy from Jefferson County, Kentucky, a case study on the Jefferson County system that outlines how other school districts can learn from and build on this innovative work.
To create an education system that is equitable and effective for all our students, we need to go beyond neighborhood schools with thoughtful student assignment processes that bring students of different backgrounds together. The JCPS plan, the process by which it was created, and the challenges it has faced all provide important lessons for school districts throughout the nation.
The Lawyers’ Committee believes that access to free, quality education is a fundamental civil right, and we are committed to efforts to ensure this right – as well as providing a diverse and integrated public school environment for all children.
We also recognize that it is simpler to send students to their nearest neighborhood schools without considering diversity. However, because of continuing residential segregation patterns, neighborhoods across America do not typically reflect the rich diversity of our cities and counties, let alone of our nation.
The issuance of the guidance documents and the implementation of diversity planning at JCPS and other forward thinking school districts across the country, provide a fresh opportunity to examine trends and demographics in public school and university systems. It also helps to eliminate the racial and economic opportunity gap among schools by improving integration and diversity. We encourage civic leaders and citizens to recommit to the goal of educational integration and diversity, because it is a goal that serves both justice and the educational needs of our children.
Tanya Clay House is the Director of Public Policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law where she serves as the principal Lawyers’ Committee representative on Capitol Hill and in state and local legislative bodies. For more information, please visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.