The Supreme Court’s sharply divided ruling yesterday that rejected integration plans based on race in two major public school districts has raised the stakes for education technology leaders to ensure that all students have equitable access to technology–and the opportunities it affords.

“The court’s ruling … sends K-12 policy makers back to the diversity drawing board,” said Maureen Dwyer, a partner in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman’s education practice and managing partner of the law firm’s Washington, D.C., office.

“The Supreme Court has upheld public education agencies’ pro-diversity motives, while striking down anything resembling quotas, and now, with [its June 28] ruling, elaborate admissions formulas incorporating race are off the table as well,” Dwyer said. “This places administrators in a challenging position; the courts are on their side in seeking diverse classrooms, but the means to get there are continually scrutinized and subject to interpretation.”

In placing limits on race as a means of creating diverse learning populations in their schools, justices have put school district leaders in a difficult position, many education groups said in the wake of the court’s 5-4 decision.

Other groups, such as the conservative Cato Institute, praised the ruling, saying the focus should not be on the racial makeup of schools, but whether they are providing students with access to a high-quality education.

Regardless of where educators might stand on the issue, it’s clear that many school districts are likely to rethink how they assign students to their schools in the aftermath of the court’s ruling.

For years, many districts have used race as a factor in placing students to help close achievement gaps and create more diverse, racially balanced learning environments. If district leaders cannot seek to achieve this kind of balance within their schools by using key demographics to assign students, the challenge then becomes: How do they ensure equitable access to educational resources–including computers, high-speed internet connections, software, training, and support–in schools with higher poverty rates and percentages of minority students?

Equitable access to digital resources was the subject of a new report from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), called “A National Consideration of Digital Equity.” Released earlier this week at the organization’s National Educational Computing Conference in Atlanta, the report says the digital divide continues to exist, particularly along demographic and socioeconomic lines. It asks, in effect, “whether current educational experiences are meeting the needs of culturally diverse students,” and it calls that idea one of seven “essential components for creating an environment that supports digital equity.”

For some ed-tech advocates, the court’s ruling provides an opportunity as well as a challenge. When used correctly, they say, technology has the potential to help level the educational playing field for all students. And with new limits imposed by the court’s ruling on using racial diversity to achieve this same goal, technology could be called upon to play a more significant role in schools.

“Many families cannot [afford to] move and might not have access to the best education available in their geographical areas,” said Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning. But “by allowing students to transcend time and place,” she said, online courses open doors for students from diverse backgrounds to come together to learn “in a color-blind environment–giving students choices to pursue a high-quality education from any location, instead of having a very limited choice … decided by others.”

The Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling in cases affecting schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle could imperil similar race-based plans in hundreds of districts nationwide, legal analysts said, and it further restricts how public school systems may attain racial diversity.

The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court’s judgment. The court’s four liberal justices dissented.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts said.

Yet Justice Anthony Kennedy would not go as far as the other four conservative justices, saying in a concurring opinion that race may be a component of school plans designed to achieve diversity.

To the extent that Roberts’ opinion could be interpreted to foreclose the use of race in any circumstance, Kennedy said, “I disagree with that reasoning.”

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population,” Kennedy said. “Race may be one component of that diversity.” He agreed with Roberts, however, that the plans in Louisville and Seattle violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.

Some advocates of greater school diversity took heart from Kennedy’s words, but others saw the court’s dominant view as essentially hostile to racial integration plans in education.

One analyst, John Banzhaf, professor of public-interest law at George Washington University, said the ruling still would permit schools to take positive steps to increase diversity, but they would not be permitted to use race as the sole basis for their policies. He predicted that school officials were likely to be told, “Consider other factors along with race–wink, wink–and we can get away with it.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by the other liberals on the court, said Roberts’ opinion undermined the promise of integrated schools that the court laid out 53 years ago in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

“To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown,” Breyer said.

While Roberts said the court was being faithful to the Brown decision, Justice John Paul Stevens, in a separate dissent, called the chief justice’s reliance on Brown to rule against integration “a cruel irony.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s only black member, wrote a separate opinion endorsing the ruling and taking issue with the dissenters’ view of the Brown case.

“What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today,” Thomas said. “The plans before us base school assignment decisions on students’ race. Because ‘our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,’ such race-based decision making is unconstitutional.”

The two school systems in the court’s decisions have used slightly different methods of taking students’ race into account when determining which school they will attend.

Federal appeals courts had upheld both plans after some parents sued. The Bush administration took the parents’ side, arguing that racial diversity is a noble goal but can be sought only through race-neutral means.

The Louisville case grew out of complaints from several parents whose children were not allowed to attend the schools of their choice. Crystal Meredith, a white, single mother, sued after the school system turned down a request to transfer her 5-year-old son, Joshua Ryan McDonald, to a school closer to home.

Louisville’s schools spent 25 years under a court order to eliminate the effects of state-sponsored segregation. After a federal judge freed the Jefferson County, Ky., school board, which encompasses Louisville, from his supervision, the board decided to keep much of the court-ordered plan in place to prevent schools from re-segregating.

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said he was disappointed with the ruling, because Louisville’s system had provided “a quality education for all students and broken down racial barriers” for 30 years. He said he was confident that school leaders would implement effective new guidelines.

The Seattle school district said it used race as one among many factors, relying on it only in some instances–and then only at the end of a lengthy process in allocating students among the city’s high schools. Seattle suspended its program after parents sued.

The opinion was the first on the divisive issue since 2003, when a 5-4 ruling upheld the limited consideration of race in college admissions to attain a diverse student body. Since then, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who approved of the limited use of race, retired. Her replacement, Justice Samuel Alito, was in the majority that struck down the school system plans in Kentucky and Washington.

The cases are Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 05-908, and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 05-915.

Links:

Supreme Court decision
www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/ 06pdf/05-908.pdf

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org

International Society for Technology in Education:
National Consideration of Digital Equity (.pdf)