Justices rule out race in schools' diversity
Arizona Daily Star


'Narrow' issues addressed don't apply to district

By George B. Sánchez

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/189710

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling rejecting race-based school assignments will have little effect on Tucson's largest school district, according to the attorneys involved in TUSD's decades-old desegregation case.

While the ruling may help shape the Tucson Unified School District in the future when it's released from the desegregation order, thus achieving unitary status, attorneys said little will change for now.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, the head of the Arizona Department of Education, said the Supreme Court's ruling will not affect other Arizona districts, either.

The ruling came from cases involving school districts in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle that voluntarily used race as a factor in student enrollment.

The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the ruling.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent that was joined by the court's three liberals. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy went along with the majority, writing a concurring opinion in which he said race may be a component of school district plans to achieve diversity though he said Seattle and Jefferson County went too far.

Heather Gaines, a local attorney representing TUSD in its desegregation case, foresaw little impact on the district.

"Our sense at the moment is that this decision has no immediate impact on TUSD, the (desegregation) case, and our student-assignment policies because we are under a court order and therefore have to consider race in student assignment," she said. "At such time that we do achieve unitary status, this decision will guide our student assignment policies."

Her opinion was shared by the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case.

"The legal issue in the Seattle and Louisville cases is whether a public school that had either not operated legally segregated schools or has been found in unitary status may consider race in making student assignment. With respect to TUSD, neither of those factors exist," said Cynthia Valenzuela, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who represents the Latino plaintiffs in TUSD's desegregation case.

"The district has operated legally segregated schools and has not achieved unitary status. Therefore, the narrow rulings in today's case have no affect on TUSD."

Rubin Salter, a local attorney representing black plaintiffs, agreed with Valenzuela and Gaines.

"I would think that where it could matter is if TUSD were in a negotiating mood and the parties got together to come up with a student-assignment plan," he said. "I believe Justice Kennedy's dissent gave guidance to parties in a post-unitary deal with student assignment."

Salter quoted a summary of the ruling that read: "To the extent that Roberts' opinion can be interpreted to foreclose the use of race in any circumstance, I disagree with that reasoning."

He explained that race-conscious decisions could be made in regard to strategic site selection for new schools, redrawing attendance zones, creating new programs, such as magnet schools, and attracting students and staff.

TUSD has been under a court order to desegregate since 1978. The order followed a class-action lawsuit filed by Latino and black parents.

Under the order, TUSD agreed to bus students across the city as well as create magnet schools to racially integrate the district. By creating magnet schools with specific entrance criteria and prescribed ethnic balances, TUSD sought to entice some of its top students to leave their neighborhoods.

In December, TUSD attorneys sought a settlement and an end to the case. Salter and MALDEF rejected the proposal, which is confidential.

Toward the end of the 2006-07 school year, TUSD unveiled a proposed return to neighborhood schools if the desegregation order was lifted.

All the while, attorneys and administrators anxiously awaited an opinion on the Supreme Court case, publicly noting that it could affect TUSD's plans.

Horne said the ruling doesn't apply to Arizona because, as far as he knows, no public school uses race as an enrollment factor.

● Contact reporter George B. Sánchez at 573-4195 or at gsanchez@azstarnet.com.