Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/132341
By Daniel Scarpinato
A decision Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether race should be used to determine where children go to school could lay the groundwork for how local districts decide which students can go where.
But because of its history of racial inequality, in the short term, the Tucson Unified School District would be allowed to continue using race to determine enrollment at its "magnet" schools regardless of the high court's decision, said Richard Yetwin, an attorney for the district.
Justices said Monday that they will hear arguments from a parents group opposed to methods used by Seattle's public schools to limit racial imbalances in its 10 high schools, as well as a similar challenge by a mother in a Kentucky school district.
Both cases deal with schools voluntarily setting up diversity or affirmative-action policies, Yetwin said, whereas TUSD's policy stems from a 28-year-old court order requiring the district to meet racial quotas in determining enrollment at magnet schools.
It doesn't appear that much is at stake for other Tucson-area school districts because they don't place students based on race.
Still, since TUSD — a district of more than 60,000 students — is actively lobbying to have the court order lifted, a ruling by the Supreme Court would lay out the terms by which the district could continue using race as a factor. Governing Board members and district officials have expressed a strong desire to maintain some kind of diversity component in student placement — either through race, socioeconomic status or both.
"I think that the thing we don't want to do is have schools that are solely of one type of person," TUSD Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer said.
A new policy would likely be more relaxed than the current procedure.
Some TUSD families have argued that policies stemming from the 1978 court order hurt schools and minority students, since whites are now a statistical minority in the district.
As a result, minority students are shut out of magnet schools offering programs such as fine arts and bilingual education simply because of their races. Meanwhile, white students are a prized commodity — as recruiters target affluent areas of town trying to lure these students into their schools.
Also, TUSD residents can't leave the district for schools in other areas because it would further throw off the racial imbalance.
"If this rules out race, I don't think that is a horrible thing," TUSD Governing Board member Judy Burns said about a potential court ruling. "We're denying kids opportunities that we shouldn't be."
Still, while polls show the country is fairly split over the issue of affirmative action, the public-education system tends to be sympathetic to the concept of encouraging racial diversity, Yetwin said.
"Many educators believe it's positive to do that," he said.
The ruling wouldn't have any effect on the Sunnyside Unified School District, spokeswoman Monique Soria said. Soria said the district doesn't place students based on race. And with Hispanics the majority in the district — 88 percent of the student body — there are no policies, she said, that put emphasis on race.
In Seattle, where one of the cases originated, the school district has an "open-choice" assignment plan that lets students choose their preferred high school. When requests exceed space, the district gives first priority to siblings of current students, and then in some cases considers race.
The cases will be the first test for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the highly charged issue of government efforts to foster racial diversity. The disputes also will mark the first Supreme Court case in more than a decade on efforts to desegregate elementary and secondary schools.
The case isn't likely to have any impact on admissions at the University of Arizona, said UA spokesman Johnny Cruz, since it deals with school placement within a district.
In 2003, the Supreme Court said university admissions offices may consider the race of applicants as a means of fostering diversity, so long as each application is given individual consideration. The latest cases test how those principles apply at lower levels, a question that has sparked litigation around the country. And the central question in the latest cases is whether the same interest warrants race-conscious assignments at other levels.
"I truly believe this community values diversity — even with its challenges," Pfeuffer said. "If you have a community that values diversity, it would be a blow if you were not able to deal with that diversity as a strength."
The justices will consider the cases in their 2006-07 term, which begins in October.
On StarNet Find test results, TUSD news and other educational resources at azstarnet.com/education
● Bloomberg News and Star reporter Eric Swedlund contributed to this story. ● Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 807-7789 or firstname.lastname@example.org.