Friday, July 13, 2007

Integration ruling a step backward

The Record is a daily newspaper based in Bergen County, N.J.


The U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling striking down voluntary school integration in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., is a step backward.

Racial diversity in the nation's classrooms, as in its communities, is a worthy and essential goal. Children of all races are harmed when they grow up isolated and have little experience interacting with other children who are different from them.

New Jersey's schools are among the most segregated in the nation—even with state laws and court rulings in place that say school segregation is illegal and the state has a responsibility to end it. It is too early to say what effect, if any, the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling will have on schools in North Jersey.

But it is clear that the direction toward integration since the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 has been reversed.

Ten years later, Teaneck became the first school district in the nation to voluntarily integrate without a court order. In the years since, Teaneck has worked to achieve racial balance in its schools by slightly altering school boundaries when necessary. But now, more than three-quarters of the district's student population is minority, and many white families in Teaneck are Orthodox and send their children to private schools.

In 2004, the New Jersey Supreme Court denied predominantly white North Haledon's wish to leave Manchester Regional High School, saying it would create an unacceptable racial imbalance at the high school. A lawyer for North Haledon said previously the U.S. Supreme Court's decision would not override the state court, but last week's ruling is now being reviewed by the district.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling falls along predictable conservative-liberal lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion and Justice Stephen Breyer the dissent. Justice Anthony Kennedy, while voting with the majority, wrote a concurring opinion that would not completely forbid schools from taking race into account. Kennedy wrote that the ruling "is too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race."

Breyer wrote the ruling "is a decision that the court and the nation will come to regret."

Incentives to integrate the nation's schools would not be necessary if racism itself did not exist. Certainly, the promise of Brown v. Board of Education has not been fulfilled. The quality of education for many low-income minority children in highly segregated schools remains abysmal.

The battle for quality education is far from over, despite this setback. Civil rights experts say districts may begin to take into account family income, home addresses, test scores or how many children in a school qualify for federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches in seeking racial balance in their classrooms.

We fail our children if they do not learn that racial segregation, and the prejudice and lost opportunity that often accompany it, go against everything for which America stands.

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