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Panel Says City’s Integration Strategy Will Withstand Federal Ruling

By Angela Rowan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 31, 2007

Nearly a month after the U.S. Supreme Court severely restricted the use of race to bring about diversity in schools, a group of legal scholars and education officials gathered at a recent panel discussion on the issue and said Berkeley’s integration strategy is likely to withstand challenges based on the recent 5-4 decision, and may become a model for other districts that are struggling to integrate their schools without triggering legal barriers. 

“We are very optimistic that the Berkeley plan will be a model adopted by others in other parts of the country,” said Michele Lawrence, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District and one of four panel members at the forum, which was held last Tuesday at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School. 

Under Berkeley’s school assignment policy, which was developed five years ago by a community advisory group charged with coming up with a race-neutral integration strategy, students are categorized by geographic zones, which are determined by parent education level, parent income, and race. Students are assigned to schools based on personal preference and on the geographic zones in which they live, rather than on their race alone. 

BUSD has thwarted challenges to its integration policy by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit which sued the district twice, alleging that Berkeley’s plan violated Proposition 209, a 1996 California law banning racial preferences in public education.  

PLF attorney Paul Beard praised the recent ruling, saying it would open up another way to challenge BUSD’s and other districts’ racial integration policies. “We only brought 209 cases because of its stricter equal protection standard,” said Beard. “But we may use federal means in the future, depending on what the facts of the case are.”  

But legal scholars at the forum seemed to agree with Lawrence’s belief that Berkeley’s policies will stand up against any new attacks by PLF or any other group. Goodwin Liu, an assistant law professor at Boalt who filed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year in favor of race-conscious school integration plans, said the Berkeley system is more coherent and comprehensive than those implemented in Louisville and Seattle, the two cities whose districts were sued in the cases recently decided by the court. He said that in Seattle the court’s majority determined that the district failed to prove that its plan passed the “compelling interest” test cited in the court ruling. 

“The Seattle case was considered ‘incoherent’ because the district only considered white and black students, even though the school district had more ethnicities,” said Liu. “So it was not coherent with the stated compelling interest” of fostering racial diversity. 

The court also found fault with the two districts because of their failure to show necessity, a standard that requires districts to exhaust all non-racial strategies to achieve integration. But David Campos, general counsel for the San Francisco Unified School District, said experience suggests that racial integration cannot be achieved without focusing on race. 

“San Francisco proves that these other strategies don’t work,” said Campos. 

SFUSD was put under a consent decree in 1983 to racially integrate its schools. In 1994, a group of Chinese American students sued the district, claiming that its integration policy discriminated against them. From 1999 to 2001, the district abandoned the use of race as a factor in integration and adopted a random assignment process, which increased segregation. After the 2002 settlement with the group, the district adopted a system which takes into account various socio-economic factors. But under that policy, Campos said, “schools continue to desegregate severely.” 

Christopher Edley, dean of Boalt Law School, wondered aloud whether the Supreme Court, in laying out a requirement of “necessity,” was compelling every district seeking to achieve diversity to exhaust every means imaginable, regardless of how many times it had been attempted elsewhere. 

“I fear that the scenario you are describing Chris is what the court intends,” said Liu. “I don’t think the justices are approaching this from a reality-based perspective.”