U.S. Supreme Court to hear major cases on affirmative action in education

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to major challenges to affirmative action at public and private universities, in two cases that will likely have implications for race-conscious policies in K-12 education.

Judges granted review of lower court rulings upholding the use of race in admissions to Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. It looks like the High Court won’t be scheduling arguments until its next term as its current term is already filled with blockbuster cases on abortion rights, the Second Amendment, religion and education.

The Harvard case, involving a private university, asked only whether race-conscious admissions violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The North Carolina case, involving a flagship state university, raises the question of whether such policies violate both Title VI and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Title VI applies to federally funded schools, while the Equal Protection Clause applies to government entities. In either provision, the principles of the court’s decision will likely apply to race-conscious policies in public elementary and secondary education, such as selective admissions to competitive schools, zoning decisions school for student enrollment and transfers.

“Only this court can address the widespread uncertainty about the legality of the growing use of race in American schools,” wrote a group of former Republican officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in an amicus curiae memorandum. which deals with both K-12 and race-conscious higher education policies.

The judges took over the Harvard case, Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard College President and Scholars (#20-1199), despite Biden administration views that a lower court had ruled correctly.

A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, had ruled in 2020 that Harvard conducted a careful review of its use of race in admissions and also found that race-neutral alternatives would not achieve the same results.

Meanwhile, Students for Fair Admissions, which is the affirmative action challenger in the Harvard and North Carolina cases, has asked the High Court to take up the latter case after a federal district judge had confirmed the state university’s consideration of race. The group sought to circumvent a federal appeals court by asking the High Court to consider the North Carolina case alongside the Harvard case.

“This case and Harvard should be heard together,” said the group’s call in Students for Fair Admissions vs. University of North Carolina (#21-707).

Edward Blum, founder and president of the SFFA, said in a statement: “We hope that judges will end the use of race as an admissions factor at Harvard, UNC and all colleges and universities. “.

In its 2016 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II), the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to uphold UT’s racially-conscious admissions plan, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing that “considerable deference is due to a university in defining these intangible characteristics , such as the diversity of the student body, which are at the heart of its identity and educational mission.

This case was decided shortly after the death of Judge Antonin Scalia, and Judge Elena Kagan was recused. Kennedy has since retired, and another member of the Fisher II The majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died in 2020. The court’s three new justices — Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — tilted the court more to the right on many issues.

The court’s decision on college admissions could establish broad principles that would affect uses of race in K-12 education. Last year, for example, a group representing Asian American parents sued the Fairfax County School District in Virginia over a new admissions plan designed to boost racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a highly selective magnet program that is considered one of the best academic high schools in the nation.

No K-12 group weighed in on the cases at the petition stage, but they likely will now that the justices have agreed to hear arguments.

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