A Different Diversity Debate

U.S. civil rights panel takes up K-12 cases, which many say will have reverberations throughout higher education.
July 31, 2006

The subject of affirmative action at law schools sparked a fiery and at times contentious debate last month at a meeting of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The commission continued its diversity-themed discussions on Friday when it heard from a panel of professors and a lawyer who specializes in education policy about the merits of race-based student placement in elementary and secondary schools. 

The conversation centered on a pair of cases that are on the U.S. Supreme Court's fall docket. Both have to do with attempts by school districts -- one in Seattle, the other in Louisville, Ky. -- to diversify their student bodies by taking race into account in assigning students to schools. Higher education experts have said that the cases, while not directly relating to colleges, could allow a revamped Supreme Court to revisit two 2003 decisions involving the University of Michigan. In those cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and  Gratz v. Bollinger, the court upheld the college's right to consider race in the admissions process while also setting boundaries for the practice.

Arthur L. Coleman, a lawyer with Holland & Knight in Washington, cited the words of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the Michigan argument, numerous times at the hearing. O'Connor, who was the swing vote on the Michigan cases, has left the court and her replacement, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., is widely seen as more skeptical of the use of racial preferences than was O'Connor.

Coleman, who is on his firm's education policy team, argued that the mission of K-12 schools is in many ways similar to that of colleges: to train students to become productive citizens in a diverse society, a phrase used by O'Connor in her decision. That mission, he said, is best achieved at the secondary and elementary level by giving school districts the authority to create racially mixed schools.

"The importance of diversity in (higher education) is of direct relevance to how we define and value diversity in elementary and secondary education," he said in his written testimony. "The interrelationship between higher education and elementary and secondary education is hardly debatable, given (among other things) the similarities among certain mission-related goals."

Among them, he said, are enhancing classroom discussions, promoting cross-racial understanding and better preparing students for an increasingly diverse workforce -- all tenets of O'Connor's decision.

Coleman said there are differences between the diversity discussion in K-12 and in higher education, particularly because the former deals with school districts' placement of students, while the latter focuses on a selective admissions process. "Cleary there is some overlap, but there are also key distinctions," he said.

Coleman argued in his testimony that students' sustained exposure to interracial learning environments leads to greater interactions as adults. Michal Kurlaender, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Davis, said that studies show that black students are more likely to attend college if they attend interracial schools. Still, numerous commission members and a pair of panelists said there is no evidence to show that racially integrated classrooms are better learning environments for black students.

Gerald A. Reynolds, chairman of the commission, said during the June meeting on higher education practices that “it seems wholly inappropriate to force values on a school,” referring to what he felt was an attempt by the American Bar Association to pressure institutions to practice unlawful racial preferences in admissions. He followed up that comment by saying Friday that, "What we have here is an attempt to restrict freedom (of students). I choose freedom time and time again."

David J. Armor, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said there have been limited proven benefits to "racial balances" in schools. He cited the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures links between racial composition of a school and academic achievement. Armor argued that the correlation is weak, and that racial composition of a school isn't the best indicator of a student's success. Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University, said the issue in K-12 is that school districts are trying to "engineer diversity."  Forcing students to go to schools, he said, is "morally repugnant."

Like Reynolds, Thernstrom advocated school choice. "If that leads to Cal-Berkeley being 50 percent Asian-American, I don't see anything wrong with it," he said.


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