Parents, students should have right to choose

By Freedom Newspapers

If those who try to forecast on the basis of comments during oral argument — always fun but not always reliable — are correct, the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to strike down “voluntary” integration plans in school districts in Seattle and Louisville. Both districts assign students to schools in an effort to make the racial balance of each school roughly the same as the balance in the entire district. As a result students are sometimes sent to schools they (or their parents) did not prefer, with the deciding factor being the color of their skin.

On Dec. 4, the court heard arguments in the cases of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education.

In 2003 the court struck down a racial-balancing regimen at the University of Michigan while narrowly upholding a similar but more narrowly tailored scheme at the university’s law school. Since then, Samuel Alito has replaced Sandra Day O’Connor. Court watchers expect this court to find the Seattle and Louisville schemes unconstitutionally fixated on race. Depending on how narrowly it is written, this decision will have ramifications across the country.

The best outcome would be to affirm the idea that the law and government entities in the United States are to treat people fundamentally as individuals rather than primarily as members of racial, ethnic, religious and politically organized groups that are often arbitrary in their delineations.

The United States has unquestionably harbored ugly racism in the past, and racism is still sometimes a factor in where one lives and how well one does in life. But misguided attempts to redress past discrimination with preferences has led to a society perhaps more race-conscious and imbued with racial and ethnic stereotypes than ever. The remedy for group-based discrimination is not discrimination in the other direction but treating people as individuals first, with racial or ethnic characteristics an interesting but legally irrelevant datum.

These cases point up some problems that always arise in a public school system where administrators rather than parents make final school-attendance choices. Some schools are usually perceived as more desirable than others. But in a system where choices are top-down rather than bottom-up, the better schools will be oversubscribed, with few effective incentives for other schools to improve. Providing more effective mechanisms of parental and student choice is beyond the purview of the Supreme Court, but it should be high on the agenda of citizens concerned about excellence in education.