McDaniel v. Barresi: The Court’s Ruling
The Supreme Court reasoned that the school board acted within its affirmative duty to replace its segregated school system with a unitary racially balanced school system when it established attendance lines and reassigned students based solely on race. While the Equal Protection Clause typically prohibits any disparate treatment on the basis of race, here the Court was of the opinion that the classification was permissible. The Court explained that the formulation of such a remedy for unconstitutional racial segregation invariably required that the students be treated differently based on their races. The Court acknowledged that “any other approach would freeze the status quo that is the very target of all desegregation” (p. 41).
Barresi sets forth parameters within which school boards may exercise discretion in voluntarily desegregating their school systems. The Court, by approving the board’s redistricting based on race, granted other boards broad remedial power to desegregate their school systems. The Court first acknowledged this expansive remedial power of school boards to rectify past segregation in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), which permitted school boards to “take whatever steps might be necessary” to eradicate segregation. McDaniel is illustrative of this broad remedial power and permits within its purview race-conscious geographical redistricting and busing to desegregate school systems. Prior to this recognition that race could serve as a legitimate factor in reapportioning pupil school attendance to end segregation, such disparate treatment of individuals based solely on race was deemed unconstitutional in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. However, it is well established that while school officials must not consider race in providing equal educational opportunity to all students, they may take race into account for the purposes of crafting remedies for historical unconstitutional racial discrimination.
McDaniel is most often cited with respect to the authoritative ability of local school boards to utilize race as a factor in student assignments to specified schools in order to rectify unlawful segregation. Moreover, state school boards have the unequivocal discretion to assign students within their school systems and can consider race in seeking to achieve racial balance. While McDaniel stands firm for the proposition that boards may take race into consideration when assigning students in the system to ameliorate the detrimental effects of past segregation, more recent litigation at the Supreme Court posed a somewhat different legal question that was not ultimately resolved.
In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), a consolidation of suits from Seattle, Washington, and, Louisville Kentucky, a majority of justices on the Supreme Court, in a plurality ruling, struck down race conscious assignment plans. The plurality invalidated the plans, which were designed to achieve racial balance and the benefits of diversity, not only because neither system was operating under desegregation orders (Seattle never had, and the one in Louisville had been terminated), but also because race was the only factor used in student assignments. However, insofar as this judgment was a plurality, questions remain about the constitutionality of the use of race in making student assignments in K–12 public schools.