Today, the Supreme Court restricted the degree to which public school districts can consider race in school assignment plans. The majority reasoned that "the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," as Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
Although he joined the conservative majority, Justice Kennedy left the door open for race to be an element of consideration for school assignment plans. "A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."
My main reaction: Yawn.
OK, I know this decision matters. I understand that city school boards, including my own San Francisco Board of Education, have a legitimate interest in maintaining racial integration in schools. Civil rights organizations are calling this a major setback to Brown vs. the Board of Education. And African Americans are much more likely than whites to support the idea that school boards should take the initiative to ensure racial integration.
But the real threat to civil rights and equal opportunity in this country is low achievement on the part of African Americans and Latino students, and the wide achievement gap between them and white students. Here in California, African American and Latino seventh-graders read at about the same level as white third-graders. (The Education Trust West has some great data showing the achievement gap in California.) And high school graduation rates for African American and Latino students are around 50% - 60% in most large cities.
This achievement gap is the real story. The civil rights leaders who pressed the Brown case 50 years ago might be disappointed in today's Supreme Court decision. But most of all, I suspect, they'd be disappointed with the wide achievement gap between the races that remains to this day.
The decision was close and might come out differently next time. But the Court is not where the action is. The good news is that, these days, we have a growing movement of schools, districts, elected leaders, foundations and parents who are leading the charge to close the achievement gap and educate all kids to high levels. I'm far more interested in what we're learning from them and how we can accelerate their successes than what the Supreme Court has decided this time around. They're the ones who are going to turn things around for America's underserved children.