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Civil Rights Officials Issue More Flexible Rules on Use of Race in School Assignments; Admissions

From guest blogger Lesli A. Maxwell

Federal civil rights officials today said that school districts and colleges and universities may legally consider race when making decisions about school assignments, admissions and other programs that are designed to increase diversity and reduce racial isolation.

The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education jointly released the new, more flexible guidelines that are meant to clear up confusion on how and when race can be considered in the wake of three earlier U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The two sets of guidance documents—one for K-12 school districts and the other for colleges and universities—cancel out those that were issued by the Education Department in August 2008 during the Bush administration.

All educational institutions that receive federal funding—roughly 15,000 school districts and more than 3,000 colleges and universities—will receive the guidance.

"Racial isolation remains far too common in America's classrooms today and it is increasing," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "This denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in a global economy, where employers, co-workers, and customers will be increasingly diverse. It also breeds educational inequity, which is inconsistent with America's core values."

The new guidelines are meant to clarify how school districts may legally consider the race of students in their plans to promote diversity and limit racial isolation in schools. The guidance is based largely on three Supreme Court rulings that directly addressed the use of race in decisions about school assignments and admissions by educational institutions: Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.

According to the new guidance, school districts may use "race-neutral" approaches to make decisions about whether to admit individual students into competitive admissions schools or programs, as well as for drawing school boundary lines. Such approaches would include using students' socioeconomic status, parental education levels, the socioeconomic status of neighborhoods and the composition of an area's housing, such as its share of subsidized housing or rental housing.

The guidance says that such race-neutral approaches are required to be used "only if they are workable." In some cases, the guidance states, "race-neutral approaches will be unworkable because they will be ineffective to achieve the diversity that the school district seeks or to address racial isolation in the district's schools."

When a race-neutral approach doesn't work, the guidance spells out that school districts may use "generalized race-based approaches" that employ express racial criteria as long as it does not involve decision-making on the basis of any individual student's race. The generalized approach could include consideration of overall racial compositions of neighborhoods when drawing attendance zones.

School districts will also be able to consider the race of individual students if it is "narrowly tailored to meet a compelling interest" such as avoiding racial isolation, the guidance states. Districts should first determine that using a race-neutral approach won't work to achieve its goals.

The guidance also lays out the types of programs and scenarios in which districts may wish to consider race: Locating schools, closing schools, opening up magnet programs, changing feeder patterns, redrawing attendance boundaries and admissions for competitive schools and programs.

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