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Volume 23, Number 6
November/December 2007

Charting a New Course toward Racial Integration

Districts seek legal routes to capture the benefits of diversity


Students in the St. Louis Public School magnet program, one of the nation's remaining inter-district desegregation programs.

Richard Gastellum, desegregation coordinator for Tucson United School District, had been watching all last spring for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on two race-based desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville. The plans being challenged in both cities were purely voluntary efforts to promote diversity, like similar plans at an estimated 1,000 districts nationwide. Tucson, however, is one of about 253 school districts across the country that are still under a court order to desegregate to remedy past harms. Tucson used an array of magnet schools, controlled choice student assignment, and forced busing to do so. Gastellum was interested in the decision to be handed down by the Court in June, but because his district’s plan was court-ordered, not voluntary, he was confident that the ruling would have no bearing on Tucson.

But it did.

Two short months after the Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that both voluntary race-based plans were unconstitutional, the U.S. district judge overseeing Tucson’s desegregation order decided that its mandated Policy 5090 “Ethnic and Racial Plan” was also now unconstitutional because it relied solely on an individual student’s race to make school assignments. The policy had prohibited students from transferring into a school or out of another if it would throw off the racial or ethnic balance of either school. So instead of moving with “all deliberate speed” to desegregate—to quote the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling—Tucson’s school board decided to turn on a dime. Two weeks into the 2007–08 school year, they voted 3-2 to scrap the 30-year-old plan immediately and move to a purely open enrollment system. “It all came as a complete surprise,” Gastellum says. “But I’m an educator, not a constitutional lawyer.”

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.