Georgia Bar Journal
GSB Vol. 13, NO. 6, Pg. 16.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Equal Protection: An Examination of Context
GSB JournalVol. 13, NO. 6April 2007Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Equal Protection: An Examination of ContextLaverne Lewis GaskinsIn 2007, the United States Supreme Court further examined the use of race as a factor in school enrollment in the following cases: Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education(fn1) (both cases collectively referred to herein as Parents Involved). In a five-to-four decision, the Court struck down the use of race in assigning students to school districts in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky.
Prior to the decision in Parents Involved, the Court in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger(fn2) permitted the use of race as an admissions factor in order to achieve diversity in the student body at a university. The decision in Parents Involved illustrates the Court's struggle to balance the government's interest in supporting diversity in specific educational settings while preserving the basic tenet that broad race-based admissions policies are unconstitutional, as established in the seminal case of Brown v. Board of Education.(fn3) This article examines the Supreme Court's decision in Parents Involved through the application of its decisions in Grutter and Brown.
Background and Procedural History
At issue in Parents Involved was the voluntary use of race-conscious student assignment plans by a school district in Seattle, Wash., and another in Jefferson County, Ky. In each district, racial classifications were employed to determine school assignment in an effort to achieve racial balance.(fn4)
Although the Seattle school district had neither operated a de jure segregated school system nor been the subject of a desegregation order, in 1998 it adopted a race-based plan to assign students to high schools.(fn5) The school district adopted the plan in response to housing selection patterns that impacted the racial composition of the district's high schools.(fn6) Under the plan, students were classified as either white or non-white.(fn7) Incoming ninth graders were permitted to select, in order of preference, the high schools that they wished to attend.(fn8) In an effort to resolve issues arising from over-selection of any particular school, a progressive, three-tiered system of "tiebreakers" was used to determine who would be enrolled at the most popular schools.(fn9) One of the tiebreakers was consideration of the student's race in the context of the overall school district's racial composition of 41 percent white and 59 percent nonwhite.(fn10) If the school that the student selected was not within 10 percentage points of the district's overall "white/nonwhite racial balance," then the tiebreaker selected the student whose race would support the desired balance at that particular school.(fn11)
Parents of Seattle students who were denied assignment to a particular school challenged this system and argued that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment,(fn12) Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964(fn13) (hereinafter Title VI), and the State of Washington Civil Rights Act.(fn14) After a series of decisions in federal and state courts, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in a rehearing en banc, eventually affirmed the ruling of the district court that Seattle's plan was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.(fn15)
In contrast, the Jefferson County school district was under a desegregation decree from 1975 until 2000, when the decree was dissolved after a finding was made that the district had achieved unitary status.(fn16) In 2001, Jefferson County adopted a voluntary student assignment plan that required "all nonmagnet schools to maintain a minimum black enrollment of 15 percent, and a maximum black enrollment of 50 percent."(fn17) Students were assigned to a "resides" school within their geographic area of residence, and elementary "resides" schools were grouped into clusters to promote integration.(fn18) Students were assigned to schools within clusters based upon available space and achievement of the specified racial enrollment percentages.(fn19)
The petitioner in the Jefferson County case alleged violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.(fn20) The district court held that the school system had asserted a compelling interest in maintaining racially diverse schools and that the assignment plan was narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.(fn21) The United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed in a per curiam opinion, relying upon the district court's reasoning.(fn22)
On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court reversed the judgments of the Courts of Appeals for the 6th and 9th Circuits in Parents Involved. Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, which Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined in part.(fn23) Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion,(fn24) and Justice Kennedy filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.(fn25) Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion,(fn26) as did Justice Breyer with Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg joining.(fn27)
In reversing the lower courts' decisions, the Court reaffirmed the well-established standard of review that racial classifications are subject to strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.(fn28) The Court stated that to withstand strict...