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New Federal Effort Aims to Support Diversity, Reduces Racial Isolation in Education

December 15, 2011

On December 2, the federal Departments of Justice and Education released two new guidance documents — one for school districts and one for colleges and universities — detailing the flexibility that the Supreme Court has provided to educational institutions to promote diversity and, in the case of elementary and secondary schools, reduce racial isolation among students within the confines of the law.

The guidance makes clear that educators may permissibly consider the race of students in carefully constructed plans to promote diversity or, in K-12 education, to reduce racial isolation. It recognizes the learning benefits to students when campuses and schools include students of diverse backgrounds.

“Diverse learning environments promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes, and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “The guidance announced today will aid educational institutions in their efforts to provide true equality of opportunity and fully realize the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.”

The guidance is primarily based on three Supreme Court decisions, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, which specifically addressed the consideration of race by educational institutions. In addition, the guidance provides numerous examples of options that schools and postsecondary institutions can consider to further diversity or reduce racial isolation. For K-12 schools, the guidance discusses school and program siting, drawing school attendance boundaries, grade realignment and restructuring feeder patterns, among other options. The guidance for postsecondary institutions describes how race can be taken into account in admissions, in pipeline programs, in recruitment, and in mentoring, tutoring, retention and support programs as efforts to achieve diversity.

The guidance lays out legal standards under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which are enforced by the Departments. Previous guidance issued by the Bush Administration in 2008 is being withdrawn today.

To review the guidance, please visit:

  1. DCL: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201111.html
  2. Guidance PSE: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/guidance-pse-201111.html

The new guidance from the Department of Education and Department of Justice was greeted favorably by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Many of our nation’s public schools are becoming increasingly re-segregated – more so than 40 years ago,” said Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel. “Today’s guidance gives schools a road map for designing programs that promote diversity and prevent racial isolation, which will benefit all students. Diverse learning environments will help dismantle stereotypes, increase students’ understanding of other viewpoints and opinions, and prepare the next generation for an increasingly interconnected world. This guidance will help give schools the tools they need to make those fundamental values a reality.”

Several civil rights groups and the ACLU also released a joint letter that said This thoughtfully crafted guidance affirms, as a majority of Supreme Court justices have recognized, that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities have compelling interests in ensuring integration and alleviating racial and economic isolation in our schools. 

As the new guidance states, “providing students with diverse, inclusive educational opportunities from an early age is crucial to achieving the nation’s educational and civic goals.” In short, we agree that these recommendations are good for our young people, for our communities and for our nation.

Racial segregation and concentrated poverty are increasing in our nation’s schools, suggesting that we are backtracking on the successes of the civil rights movement. Many schools are more racially isolated today than they were in the 1970s. Today’s guidance recognizes the harms of resegregation and the benefits of diversity.

We echo the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, as well as the Supreme Court majority, in acknowledging that “the skills students need for success in ‘today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.’”

Although K-12 and higher educational institutions can seek alternatives above and beyond the avenues suggested by the guidance, we stand ready to work with the Federal Government in this vital effort to promote inclusive educational opportunities, for the sake of all our children – and for the long-term well-being of our nation.”

The joint letter was signed by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under the Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., the National Coalition on School Diversity and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

Source:  U.S. Department of Education, American Civil Liberties Union.