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US Supreme Court Tackles Issue of Race in Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday challenging the right of local school systems in Washington state and Kentucky to carry out voluntary plans that promote racial integration. The high court rulings in these two cases could have a far-reaching impact on school desegregation efforts around the country. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

At issue are voluntary desegregation plans in two cities, Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky.

School officials in both locations are trying to keep the schools racially balanced. In the case of Louisville, for example, the goal is to have an African-American student enrollment of between 15 and 50 percent in each school.

But some parents who oppose the voluntary integration efforts have filed suit, charging that the plans amount to reverse discrimination because they prevent some white students from attending certain schools because of the need to achieve racial balance.

The Bush administration supports the parents who are suing the two school districts in question.

Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and is among those supporting the legal challenge to the voluntary school desegregation efforts.

"Obviously, there are going to be many instances in which people are told that they cannot attend a particular school because of their skin color," he said. "This is personally unfair. It sets a disturbing legal, political and moral precedent in favor of allowing government discrimination and creating resentment."

During Monday's oral arguments, some of the justices questioned whether the two school plans in question put too much emphasis on race. Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern that school assignments might be based on skin color alone.

But supporters of the desegregation plans disagree. They argue that the academic and social benefits of racial integration benefit white and black students alike.

Attorney John Payton has had a long involvement in school desegregation efforts.

"I do not think there is any real argument that, when done the right way, that diversity has enormous benefits for the kids in the sense that they come out seeing all of their classmates as their peers, not as other people who do things different from what they do," he said. "It has an enormous benefit for our whole society."

As the oral arguments took place inside the Supreme Court, hundreds of students marched outside and chanted slogans in support of the voluntary integration plans.

The Supreme Court played a crucial role in the struggle for racial integration with its 1954 decision known as Brown v. the Board of Education. That ruling outlawed the practice of separate but equal school systems for black and whites and ushered in an era of court-enforced school desegregation efforts around the country.

Those efforts reached a peak in the 1970s, but in recent years, many school systems have been freed from court and government oversight and school desegregation efforts in general have declined.

Ted Shaw is president of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The days of mandatory school desegregation are all but over," he said. "Now even voluntary integration efforts are being called racial discrimination. You figure that out. You think through that. You figure out who stands on the legacy of Brown versus the Board of Education."

But critics of the desegregation efforts question the academic benefits from balancing populations of white and black students.

Terence Pell is president of the Center for Individual Rights. He says local school boards would better serve African-American students by focusing on improving their academic performance rather than plans aimed at racial balance.

"The real problems here are not the individual choices of parents and students [as to which school to attend]," he said. "It is more clearly identified as the systematic, pervasive and overwhelming failure of the government to provide a minimally adequate education for its African-American students."

How the Supreme Court rules in these two cases could have a major impact on hundreds of other school systems around the country that take race into account when balancing school populations.

High court rulings on the two cases are expected early next year.