Supreme Court Revisits Historic Issue

Educators are still struggling to achieve racial balance in classrooms.
Educators are still struggling to achieve racial balance in classrooms.

Can schools, in the interest of promoting desegregation, use race as a factor in deciding which school each student should attend? The Supreme Court Monday hears arguments on that potentially historic question, in connection with lawsuits filed by parents in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., who object to the practice.

The Bush administration has taken the side of the parents who are suing the school districts, much as it intervened on behalf of college and graduate students who challenged affirmative action policies before the Supreme Court in 2003.

CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller went to Manchester, Ct., to report on the debate over "racial imbalance."

It may not look like it but schools in Manchester, Connecticut, are becoming racially segregated, and it's superintendent Kathleen Ouellette's problem to solve, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

"Historically, this has been an issue for Manchester for many years," Ouellette tells Miller.

Eight of Manchester's 10 elementary schools are nearing what is being called "racial imbalance," where concentrations of minority students are either too high (above 73 percent) or too low (below 23 percent).

Gary Orfield, director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project, labels it "re-segregation" and says it's a nationwide trend.

"Schools in every part of the country, have become more segregated for black and Latino students, and we are now back to a level of segregation that hasn't existed for about a third of a century," says Orfield.

To solve its issues, Manchester is currently looking at three possible options: re-drawing districts to include more racial diversity, pairing majority white schools with majority black and Latino ones, and trading students or creating a complex school choice program.

"While Manchester's fix may imply race, in other parts of the country, race is an explicit admissions criterion," says Ouellette. "That has led to a number of legal challenges that face the Supreme Court, and some civil rights groups charge that's a direct threat to school integration."

At issue in the cases now before the Supreme Court is the question of whether or not race-based preferences in K through 12 school admissions are constitutional. The justices haven't explored this issue so broadly since 1954's landmark Brown vs Board of Education decision, which made school segregation unconstitutional.

"We need to get school officials out of the business of racial engineering and into the business of providing a quality education for all students, regardless of race and circumstance," says Terrence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights.

Nearly a dozen school districts nationwide are avoiding the fight altogether and are attempting to diversify classrooms by income.

Manchester hasn't explored that option yet, but may have to, depending on the Supreme Court's decision. Either way, Ouellette believes diversity is more than a legal mandate.

"It's our obligation that we provide our students with opportunities to share experiences with all cultures and all ways of life," says Ouellette.

A lesson and a challenge, in a country growing more diverse by the day.