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Policy Paper: The Rewards and Challenges of District-Regulated Diversity

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The Rewards and Challenges of District-Regulated Diversity


            In 2007, the Supreme Court decided a case that has had a significant effect on the students of Seattle public schools[1] as well as the national discourse around diversity in educational institutions. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 addressed a controversy over whether or not students’ racial identities could be used to purposefully promote  ethnic variety in high schools. The district policy that was brought to the court by PICS required students to formally classify themselves as white or non-white and affected certain teens’ access, both positively and negatively, to particular Seattle high schools. Some view the Court’s decision to discontinue Seattle’s diversity strategy as a setback for the city’s students in terms of creating racially balanced learning environments, while others interpret it as step towards removing the influence of racial identity from the school system. The PICS v. Seattle ruling brought a new dimension to the public dialog on the role of ethnic identities in solving issues of racial discrimination, and although it had a somewhat harmful effect on Seattle students’ access to racially diverse schools, it did present an opportunity for the district to redefine diversity and structure future policies on other aspects of student identity.

            In order to adequately analyze the Court’s decision on the PICS case, it is important to provide some background for the lawsuit. Prior to the 2007 ruling, the Seattle School District’s student assignment plan allowed teens to select any high school in the city, and spots at the most popular institutions were given according to a system of “tiebreakers.” The students were chosen based on where their siblings went to school, proximity to their school of choice, and their self-selected racial identity. The district’s aim was to have educational environments that reflected the ethnic demographics of the Seattle student community, so they capped white enrollment at approximately 40% and non-white enrollment at 60% for each high school.[2] The racial tiebreaker successfully diversified high schools where the student bodies largely consisted of white or minority students. The president of Parents Involved in Community Schools instigated the backlash against Seattle’s policy because her daughter had been denied access to her top three high schools of choice.[3] She was a white student from one of Seattle’s most affluent neighborhoods, and like many others, was unable to attend her neighborhood high school with her childhood peers.[4] Though this particular student provided the motivation for the lawsuit, it was argued that the tiebreaker policy violated all students’ civil rights and the PICS lawyer built the challenge to Seattle’s assignment plan on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The final 5-4 split on the court ruled that Seattle’s racial tiebreaker was unconstitutional, a decision with a profound impact on schools nationwide as well as the discourse around acceptable methods of handling race-based inequity.

            PICS v. Seattle imposed a limitation for schools across the country and incited a resurgence of opinions around the morality and efficacy of racially-biased school selection. The decision determined that Seattle did not have a strong enough justification for voluntary, purposeful integration, which jeopardized other school assignment programs with a racial factor. Though the impact on district policies was significant, the Justices’ opinions also raised a very pressing and difficult question: Is forced integration a potential remedy for racial discrimination? In the PICS ruling, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the goal of increased classroom diversity was not a legitimate reason to return to a form of racially conscious school assignment that in his opinion, violated the intentions of the Brown v. Board ruling. In fact, he suggested that race should not be a concern in district policies at all, writing “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[5] Would ignoring a student’s racial identity when assigning him to a public high school alleviate the social significance of his race, therefore removing the possibility of prejudice against him? One potential interpretation for Justice Roberts’ opinion is yes, if the government does not sort people according to their skin color, then gradually society will not recognize it as a point of difference. His opinion implies that separating students by race, even when the goal is integration rather than segregation, is a slippery slope. But, if we as a country were to become “color blind,” where would that leave people who strongly identify with their race? Is social learning enriched by endorsing and celebrating multi-culturalism and differences in identity? These questions address a concept that was an important factor in the remaining opinions on the Court.

The dissenting justices who sided with the Seattle School District believed that the PICS v. Seattle ruling directly dishonored the essential goals of Brown v. Board, and in his opinion, Justice Breyer wrote that “this is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret.”[6] Even after the ruling, Seattle continued to voice ideological support for the racial tiebreaker, saying that it was necessary policy in the scope of promoting diversity within public schools.[7] Both the district and the minority on the Court considered a multi-racial educational environment to be something worth protecting and pursuing within American education. This raises a question that challenges Justice Roberts’ opinion: is recognition of and exposure to racial differences within a classroom setting the key to ethnic inclusion? Would purposefully placing students in a school with children of varied ethnic backgrounds and identities promote learning, understanding, and appreciation in regard to racial differences? The four other justices in the majority also disagreed with Roberts, saying that his solution would only perpetuate racial isolation in schools.[8] Though they agreed that Seattle’s policy was unconstitutional because it categorized students by race, they supported other race-conscious solutions to unintentionally segregated schools, such as gerrymandering districts with an eye toward diversity.[9] Although the Court decided to discontinue a policy meant to promote multi-racial classrooms, eight of the nine justices agreed that ethnically-varied schools posed a more promising solution to discrimination than allowing racially-isolated environments to continue. Given the judicial support for mixed classrooms, the practical impact of the PICS ruling on the Seattle School District is troubling.

To understand the ramifications of the Court’s decision in PICS v. Seattle, it is important to know that the city involved, although fairly diverse in terms of general demographics, is composed of largely segregated neighborhoods. Seattle’s predominantly white areas tend to be more affluent, and the districts where the majority of residents are ethnic minorities are typically more underprivileged. The latter are also more densely populated and have lower property taxes, which can lead to an inequity of resources among schools in the district. The racial tiebreaker sought to prevent the inevitability of predominantly white and largely minority public schools by giving students access to an education outside their own neighborhood. Given the pending legal action against the policy, Seattle suspended use of the tiebreaker system for five years before the PICS ruling, reverting to a location-based assignment plan. Within that time, the district’s fears were realized: schools became more racially segregated. Though the court only ruled that the tiebreaker was unconstitutional for high schools, Seattle discontinued the policy for K-12 students and the schools in predominantly white neighborhoods lost minority enrollment quickly.[10]

There are a number of access issues involved with the shift that occurred when the racially-conscious system went out of effect. The new neighborhood-based assignment plan allowed the city to discontinue school bus service to kids who weren’t inside the transportation zone for a particular institution.[11] Minority students in neighborhoods with poorly funded schools lost an enrollment advantage and gained a transportation restriction that made it much more difficult for them to attend a school outside their area. Most white students regained an enrollment advantage at their neighborhood school, but their opportunity to learn in a racially diverse classroom became limited. The Court’s decision in PICS v. Seattle was intended to restore students’ civil rights and prevent racial prejudice, but the ramifications in public schools raise the question of whether the original policy’s racial-consciousness was more discriminatory than the resulting lack of access to well-funded schools for many minority students. While Justice Roberts argued that Seattle’s assignment system violated the terms of Brown v. Board, couldn’t one also argue that a neighborhood-based plan that leads to racially isolated schools with unequal resources returns us to the very problem Brown was meant to solve? The impact of the Court’s decision on Seattle schools contradicted the notion of diversity in educational environments for which eight of the nine justices had voiced support. Those voices were what led the Seattle School District to view the outcome of the case as a challenge, rather than a disappointment.

Though Seattle’s original racial-tiebreaker system could be considered innovative, the outcome of the PICS case actually prompted the school board to start contemplating more creative ways to promote diversity in the classroom. Following the Court’s decision, one Seattle School Board member said, “This ruling leaves us open to pursue diverse schools as a goal, and we’ll be looking to define diversity more broadly.”[12] The general feeling in the school district was that the Supreme Court had affirmed the importance of ethnic variety in schools, and the city just needed to find a method for achieving that goal without using racial classifications. One idea that gained support following the case was the suggestion of a socioeconomic tiebreaker, partly because poverty is often correlated with race, and also because it would provide low-income students with more access to high-performing schools.[13] Seattle has not yet introduced a new school-assignment system, an action which the School Board defends by saying that equalizing schools in terms of resources and performance is the top priority, rather than trying to redistribute the student population among already broken institutions.[14]

 More broadly, PICS v. Seattle requires school boards, parents, and students alike to decide what role public education should play in combatting racial discrimination. Should Seattle and other districts nationwide follow the advice of Justice Roberts, and remove any consideration of race from their educational strategies? Or should districts find ways to purposefully promote racial mixing from kindergarten upward in an attempt to broaden kids’ cultural understanding? Of course, there are tensions that might arise in a classroom with varying ethnicities, but perhaps one of the ways to work against any race-related strain is to immerse students in a diverse educational environment from day one. In a nation where people have increasingly pluralistic identities, it is inevitable that kids will be exposed to ethnic backgrounds, religions, political views, family-structures, abilities, and learning styles other than their own, so why not raise them in a classroom where these differences are not only represented, but celebrated? Whether the PICS v. Seattle was a setback for racial equality or simply a chance for the school board to reinvent its policies, Seattle, as well as public schools across the country, have an opportunity to change classroom environments in a way that could drastically affect the cultural education of the next generation.


















Works Cited

Blanchard, Jessica and Christine Frey. “Schools Seek New Diversity Answers After Court            Rejects Race as Tiebreaker.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer 28 June 2007: 1-2. Web. 5 October 2014.

Kaufman, Wendy and Nina Totenberg. “Supreme Court Quashes School Desegregation.” NPR    29 June 2007. Web. 5 October 2014.

Mayo, Justin and Brian M. Rosenthal. “6 Seattle Schools Have Become Whiter as New     Assignment Plan Changes Racial Balance.” The Seattle Times 20 August 2012: 1. Web. 5 October 2014.

Minnow, Martha. In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark. New York:     Oxford UP, 2010. Print.




[1] It should be noted that the PICS v. Seattle ruling also addressed a portion of the student assignment plan for the public school district in Louisville, KY. This paper will be devoted to the case’s ruling in the Seattle School District for the purposes of brevity and a focused argument.

[2] Blanchard, Jessica and Christine Frey. “Schools Seek New Diversity Answers After Court Rejects Race as Tiebreaker.” (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: 2007).

[3] Blanchard and Frey.

[4] Blanchard and Frey.

[5] Minnow, 29.

[6] Blanchard and Frey.

[7] Blanchard and Frey.

[8] Kaufman, Wendy and Nina Totenberg. “Supreme Court Quashes School Desegregation.” (NPR: 2007).

[9] Kaufman and Totenberg.

[10] Blanchard and Frey.

[11] Mayo, Justin and Brian M. Rosenthal. “6 Seattle Schools Have Become Whiter as New Assignment Plan Changes Racial Balance.” (The Seattle Times: 2012).

[12] Blanchard and Frey.

[13] Blanchard and Frey.

[14] Blanchard and Frey.