August 12, 2002

School Desegregation Policy Is Challenged


LYNN, Mass. Three years ago, when Samantha Comfort asked to enroll her daughter, Elizabeth, in kindergarten at Sisson Elementary School here, near her day care provider's home, she did not know that she was starting down a path to litigation that could determine the fate of hundreds of school diversity policies nationwide.

All she knew was that in this racially mixed city north of Boston the school authorities had told her that Elizabeth, who is white, could not go to Sisson.

"They told me there would be no problem if she were a minority," Ms. Comfort said. "That just boggled my mind. I think it's good for children to be exposed to all different kinds of people, and I don't disagree with the idea of racially balanced schools. But I don't judge people by their race, and I don't think the schools should either."

So Ms. Comfort filed a federal lawsuit, asserting that the desegregation plan adopted voluntarily by Lynn in 1988 illegally discriminated against her child.

School districts nationwide are quietly grappling with continuing uncertainty about just how and when they can legally take race into account in assigning children to schools, allowing transfers, admitting children to magnet schools or drawing school boundaries. But Ms. Comfort's case, in which Judge Nancy Gertner of Federal District Court in Boston will hear closing arguments in September, is the first challenge of a district's voluntary desegregation plan to go to trial.

Educators are watching the Lynn case for guidance on how far districts may go to promote diversity in public schools. Though the issue of admissions based on race at colleges and universities has been endlessly debated and litigated in May the United States Supreme Court upheld race as a factor in admissions to the University of Michigan law school diversity efforts in public schools have received less judicial scrutiny.

"School districts are aching for some sort of definite answer on when they can consider race," said Edwin Darden, a senior staff lawyer at the National School Boards Association. "There are such different standards in different parts of the country. I'm predicting that the Supreme Court has to take a case within the next three years."

Lynn, a district with 15,000 students, set up its plan to apply equally to all races and to give parents more freedom in their choice of schools. Under the plan, a student may attend the neighborhood school, but race comes into play when a student seeks to attend a different school. Barring special circumstances, a student may not transfer into or out of a racially imbalanced school if the move would increase the imbalance in either school.

For Ms. Comfort the issue is moot. She was allowed to enroll Elizabeth at Sisson because of Ms. Comfort's day care needs. (Ms. Comfort and Elizabeth later moved to North Carolina.) But the case has taken on a life of its own, with financial backing from the Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights, a conservative Boston group that gained attention for opposing participation of gay rights organizations in that city's St. Patrick's Day parade.

Chester Darling, president of the group, said Massachusetts could not legally make school transfers contingent on which race parents label their children.

"Diversity is a fine thing," Mr. Darling said, "but it's not a compelling state interest that can be forced by race-based policies."

Across the country, judges have recently dismantled many court-ordered desegregation plans from decades ago. But hundreds of school districts have voluntarily adopted policies or plans to promote diversity. In Massachusetts, where such policies can qualify districts for extra money under the state's Racial Imbalance Act, more than 20 other districts have voluntary plans that could be directly affected by the Lynn ruling.

Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, worry that the Lynn case, and the involvement of Mr. Darling's group, may make elementary schools the next battleground in the fight over affirmative action.

"Outside groups are beginning to come in with the agenda of removing the consideration of race in K-12 schools, as they have in higher ed," said Dennis Parker, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. "The Lynn case is a direct challenge to the Supreme Court's language that school boards and states, for educational purposes, can consider race."

Both sides in the case agree that test scores and attendance in the Lynn schools have improved since the plan went into effect, while suspension rates and school violence have declined. They also stipulated that minority students do not have a disproportionate suspension rate. A survey of the high school students found broad racial representations in basic classes and honors classes.

The trial has focused on the pedagogical and social benefits of diversity. The state attorney general introduced experts to testify that having children of different races mix on an equal basis when they are young can help improve academic achievement as well as their ability to get along with others. The citizens' group had one expert witness, who testified that there was no solid evidence that any particular racial mix produced such results.

Some local parents say their own experience has made them appreciate the Lynn plan. Karen Horner, like Ms. Comfort, is a Lynn parent who was told that the racial-balancing plan would stop her child from going to the school she wanted. But Ms. Horner, who is black, said she supported the decision because it helped maintain diversity in the schools.

"I grew up in Dorchester, which was black, and I was bused to white schools in Lexington from third grade on," she said, "and that's what really prepared me for life. I didn't want my children to grow up in a segregated school. In Lynn, they've always had a racially mixed group of friends."

Without the Lynn plan, experts for the government said, 9 of Lynn's 18 elementary schools would be almost segregated.

If the court strikes down the Lynn plan, the results will be disastrous, said Richard Cole, the assistant state attorney general handling the case. He said: "If kids come together for the first time at junior high or high school, carrying racial stereotypes and no countervailing friendships, it's a recipe for schools that are disastrously polarized by racial tension, where students can't concentrate on academics."

In Lynn, the school population this year is 42 percent white and 58 percent minority. Under the school plan, an elementary school is deemed racially imbalanced if its racial makeup differs by more than 15 percent from the area's overall mix. Middle schools have slightly different criteria, and the plan does not apply to Lynn's three high schools, which are all racially balanced.

About a third of the students in the district attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

"Since the plan started, with more minorities in the district, and more people of lower socioeconomic status, the standardized test scores have been rising and the number of whites leaving has been falling," Mr. Cole said. "Why would you dismantle a plan that's been so successful?"

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company