Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2007
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission
November 28, 2007
Members of the MLK Commission’s Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Anniversary Subcommittee assigned to develop commemorative activities, programs, and events for the commemoration met in Richmond on November 28, 2007. Numerous suggestions were offered and discussed. It was agreed that all activities would be designed to reach multiple audiences, including school children, educators, scholars, researchers, and the public. The special subcommittee will report its recommendations to the King Commission on December 19, 2007.
November 29, 2007
The special subcommittee of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Committee on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education convened for organizational purposes on November 29, 2007 in Richmond. The special subcommittee is co-chaired by Senator Henry L. Marsh, III, and Senator Benjamin J. Lambert, III, and consists of members from both groups and representatives of the school superintendents, school boards, teachers, school principals, and the Department of Education.
On June 28, 2007, the United State Supreme Court, in a landmark decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, ruled the school desegregation plans in both cases unconstitutional. These cases have been followed by the King Commission since the two-year anniversary of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, as many legal scholars have characterized the cases as the most significant public school desegregation decision since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
THE FACTS AND DECISION IN SEATTLE (PICS) AND MEREDITH
In Seattle (PICS), “students were permitted to apply to any high school in the school district. Since certain schools often became oversubscribed when too many students chose them as their first choice, the District used a system of tiebreakers to decide which students would be admitted to the popular schools. The second most important tiebreaker was a racial factor intended to maintain racial diversity. If the racial demographics of any school's student body deviated by more than a predetermined number of percentage points from those of Seattle's total student population (approximately 40% white and 60% non-white), the racial tiebreaker went into effect. At a particular school either whites or non-whites could be favored for admission depending on which race would bring the racial balance closer to the goal.
A non-profit group, Parents Involved in Community Schools (Parents), sued the District, arguing that the racial tiebreaker violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Washington state law. A federal District Court dismissed the suit, upholding the tiebreaker.
On appeal, a three-judge panel the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. Under the Supreme Court's precedents on racial classification in higher education, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, race-based classifications must be directed toward a "compelling government interest" and must be "narrowly tailored" to that interest. Applying these precedents to K-12 education, the Circuit Court found that the tiebreaker scheme was not narrowly tailored. The District then petitioned for an "en banc" ruling by a panel of 11 Ninth Circuit judges. The en banc panel came to the opposite conclusion and upheld the tiebreaker. The majority ruled that the District had a compelling interest in maintaining racial diversity. Applying a test from Grutter, the Circuit Court also ruled that the tiebreaker plan was narrowly tailored, because 1) the District did not employ quotas, 2) the District had considered race-neutral alternatives, 3) the plan caused no undue harm to races, and 4) the plan had an ending point.”
In Meredith, “the Jefferson County Public Schools were integrated by court order until 2000, when it was released. Thereafter, the system implemented an enrollment plan designed to maintain substantial racial integration through school choice. In the instance when schools could not accommodate all of the students, student enrollment was decided on the basis of several factors, including place of residence, school capacity, and random chance, as well as race. However, no school was allowed to have an enrollment of black students less than 15% or greater than 50% of its student population.
Meredith and other parents sued the school district, arguing that the plan's racial classifications violated the students' Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws. Under the Supreme Court's decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, race-based classifications must be directed toward a "compelling government interest" and must be "narrowly tailored" to that interest. The District Court ruled that the plan was constitutional because the school had a compelling interest in maintaining racial diversity. The court held that though the plan paid "some attention to numbers," it did not constitute a rigid quota system. According to the Supreme Court's precedents, rigid racial quotas are never narrowly tailored. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court without issuing an opinion of its own, and Meredith appealed to the Supreme Court.”
The summary of the decision is as follows: By a 5-4 vote, the Court applied a "strict scrutiny" framework and found the District's racial tiebreaker plan and Jefferson County's enrollment plan unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the plurality opinion that "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." The Court acknowledged that it had previously held that racial diversity can be a compelling government interest in university admissions, but it ruled that "[t]he present cases are not governed by Grutter."
Unlike the cases pertaining to higher education, the District's and Jefferson County’s plans involved no individualized consideration of students, and they employed a very limited notion of diversity ("white" and "non-white") and ("black" and "other"), respectively. The District's and Jefferson County's goal of preventing racial imbalance did not meet the Court's standards for a constitutionally legitimate use of race: "Racial balancing is not transformed from 'patently unconstitutional' to a compelling state interest simply by relabeling it 'racial diversity.'" The plans also lacked the narrow tailoring that is necessary for race-conscious programs.
The Court held that the District's tiebreaker plan and Jefferson County's enrollment plan were actually targeted toward demographic goals and not toward any demonstrable educational benefit from racial diversity. The District and Jefferson County also failed to show that their objectives could not have been met with non-race-conscious means. In a separate opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Kennedy agreed that the District's and Jefferson County’s use of race was unconstitutional but stressed that public schools may sometimes consider race to ensure equal educational opportunity. (The Oyez Project, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 551 U.S. ___ (2007), available at: http://ww.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2006_05_915/).
Following a briefing by the staff, the Subcommittee conferred by teleconference with Mr. Francis J. Mellen, Jr., of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP, in Louisville, Kentucky, who argued cause for Respondents in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, and Sharon Browne, Principal Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, in Sacramento, California, which was instrumental in litigating Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Professor Henry L. Chambers, Jr. provided a legal analysis of Virginia’s pupil assignment law, pursuant to § 22.1-79, Code of Virginia, and implications for public schools in the Commonwealth relative to the High Court’s decision.
PROPOSED WORK PLAN - THE MARSH PROPOSAL
The special subcommittee adopted Senator Marsh’s proposal as the work plan for the study. He advised that, in view of the decision and Virginia’s past history, it was advisable to proactively, systematically, and objectively consider the implications of the Court’s decision for Virginia’s public schools, particularly given the potential impact of the decision in predominantly minority populated areas of the Commonwealth, the growing population of immigrant students, and in school divisions with several schools that have not received full state accreditation. The consensus of the special subcommittee is to offer appropriate and feasible solutions only if warranted by its review.
Given the approaching 2008 Legislative Session, the special subcommittee determined that it was not prepared to offer recommendations to the next Session regarding any changes that may be necessary in Virginia. Therefore, the staff was directed to research and compile certain information and data pertaining to pupil assignment plans in the Commonwealth, pursuant to the subcommittee’s work plan. The research will be conducted during the interim between December 2007 and the end of Session in March 2008. The special subcommittee will reconvene in April after the Session to review the data and make certain recommendations, if deemed necessary. The staff was requested to provide copies of certain data and reports requested of Ms. Browne during her presentation to all members of the special subcommittee and, during the intervening period before the next meeting, to invite other eminent legal scholars and representatives of Virginia school boards currently involved in developing new pupil assignment plans to speak to the special subcommittee in the spring.
Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2007