New Guidance for School Districts Seeking to Achieve Diversity, Avoid Racial Isolation

Last Updated: December 30, 2011

This article appeared in the December 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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In December, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice collectively issued guidance for how school districts can “voluntarily consider race to further compelling interests in achieving diversity and avoiding racial isolation.”

Since the 2007 ruling in Parents Involved (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1), in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of individualized racial classifications in assigning students to schools in Louisville and Seattle, many districts have been unclear on whether and how they can achieve diversity in schools.

“Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools” replaces earlier guidance issued on August 28th, 2008 entitled, “The Use of Race in Assigning Students to Elementary and Secondary Schools.”

The guidance opens with a quote from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… It is the very foundation of good citizenship.” The guidance continues by asserting that “Providing students with diverse, inclusive educational opportunities from an early age is crucial to achieving the nation’s educational and civic goals.”

Approaches That Do Not Rely On the Race of Individual Students

According to the guidance, “Approaches to achieve diversity or avoid racial isolation fall into two broad categories: those that do not rely on the race of individual students, and those that do,” and districts should consider approaches that do not before adopting approaches that do.

Approaches that do not rely on the race of individual students include both race-neutral and generalized race-based approaches. “Race-neutral approaches can take racial impact into account but do not rely on race as an express criterion. Generalized race-based approaches use race as an express criterion, but do not rely on the race of individual students or treat individual students differently because of their race.”

Examples of race-neutral approaches include but are not limited to criteria such as student socioeconomic status, parental education, students’ household status, neighborhood socioeconomic status, geography, and composition of area housing.

School districts are not required to implement such approaches if the approaches would not be workable.

When race-neutral approaches would be unworkable, school districts may use generalized race-based approaches. These approaches use racial criteria (for example, the racial composition of neighborhoods), but do not base decisions on the basis of the race of individual students.

Approaches That Do Rely On the Race of Individual Students

School districts should use approaches that consider the race of individuals only when race-neutral approaches would be unworkable and, in these cases, districts may only consider the race of individual students in a manner that is “narrowly tailored to meet a compelling interest.”

In using these approaches, districts should “provide each student with an individualized review appropriate to the K-12 context.” Schools may not evaluate student applicants (to selective schools, for example) in a way that makes student race a defining feature. Districts should also review the program periodically to determine whether racial classifications remain necessary.

Examples of Acceptable Approaches

The guidance outlines a variety of approaches that would meet the requirements of the law. These include school and program siting decisions, decisions about grade realignment and feeder patterns, open and choice enrollment decisions, admission to competitive schools and programs, and inter- and intra-district transfers.

The guidance provides legal rationale for the examples and citations.

Read more:

Letter on voluntary compliance from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights:

Guidance for elementary and secondary schools (from U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice):

Read more from the December 2011 Rural Policy Matters.