Should Public Schools Consider Pupils’ Race?

Blogging the Beltway: The Obama administration thinks so, issuing new guidelines supporting school diversity programs.

On Friday the departments of Education and Justice jointly released new guidance emphasizing that public schools may voluntarily consider race in order to achieve student diversity. The two documents (one for K-12, the other for colleges and universities) describe various approaches that administrators can lawfully take when using race in decisions such as admissions, recruitment and school location.

“Diverse learning environments promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement, mirroring the documents’ arguments that schools have strong interests in ensuring integration and discouraging racial isolation. “The guidance announced [on Friday] will aid educational institutions in their efforts to provide true equality of opportunity, and fully realize the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.

Now, being allowed to have racial-diversity and integration programs in public schools isn’t actually new. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that, within certain confines, educational institutions can consider race. In fact, the guidance is largely based on three recent Supreme Court decisions: Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. While some of those cases limited the use of race (in 2003’s Gratz v. Bollinger, the court ruled that the specific design of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program was unconstitutional), none of them outlawed it altogether.  

What’s different with the new guidance, then, is the official White House position on it. While the Supreme Court has signed off on the constitutionality of race-conscious diversity programs in public schools, in 2008 the Bush administration’s Department of Education released guidance advocating that they employ race-neutral policies. Now the Obama administration has replaced those guidelines.

“Racial isolation remains far too common in America’s classrooms today, and it is increasing,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “This denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in a global economy, where employers, co-workers and customers will be increasingly diverse. It also breeds educational inequity, which is inconsistent with America’s core values.”

Although the Obama administration has clearly staked a claim on the matter, it’s possible that today’s Supreme Court might not back it up. The justices will soon consider whether to hear a new case challenging affirmative action at the University of Texas at Austin — one that could potentially render the administration’s new guidelines moot.

It may seem a little 1950s for the government to make a big point to underscore the legality of integration and diversity programs in public schools, but it’s still a significant issue. Consider that American schools are more racially segregated today than they were when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. And the University of Texas case, if taken on, will reintroduce the often prickly national debate over racial preferences.

In the meantime, the Obama administration’s position is that the segregation and concentrated poverty in our schools fosters educational inequity and shortchanges all of our students. What’s your take? Does school diversity matter?

Cynthia Gordy is The Root’s Washington reporter.