Carlson vs. board of education

As I-200's John Carlson prepares to sue the Seattle School District over its integration policy, California courts may have doomed his efforts.

"Politically correct racism has got to go," vows KVI talk jock John Carlson, as he predicts victory in his suit against the Seattle school district. Carlson is using the district's race-based assignment policy as the first court test of Initiative 200, the anti-affirmative action law he led to victory last year. Carlson says he's fighting to protect the civil rights of white students who don't get admission to the public school of their choice because of their skin color.

If the public school students are suffering from reverse racism, it's a pretty weak strain. Under the schools' current assignment plan, the odd student whose skin color differs from her or his neighbors' gets preference for the neighborhood school to help integrate it. These wild cards aren't numerous enough to threaten most students' chances of admission to their closest school. Occasionally a popular school, though, will fill up with "integration positive" students to the exclusion of the other children in the neighborhood. That's what happened, for example, at Eckstein Middle School in the North end this year. But the district proved flexible: Several dozen white Laurelhurst parents complained that their kids had been left out of this hot "neighborhood school" and the board let them in without much of a fight—no George Wallace types were blocking Eckstein's door so the Laurelhurst students couldn't get in.

School board president Barbara Schaad-Lamphere says the district is standing by its integration policy. "The Board has made a statement that we value diversity in education," she says. She points out that only 17 percent of students didn't get into their first choice public school this year. Not all were disappointed because of the integration positive factor; some may have requested a school outside of their neighborhood, for example, or missed the registration deadline. "Eighty-three percent is a pretty high rate of satisfaction," says Schaad-Lamphere.

Carlson counters that it's the principle and not the practice that counts. "Our suit doesn't address people or situations," he says. "It addresses issues." Actually, that remains to be seen. Carlson, who lives in Bellevue (but grew up in West Seattle), is the only public face on the suit so far. But he says that there are other plaintiffs whose identities he will shield until the suit is filed, probably some time next month. He won't say whether the others in his party are any of the angry Seattle parents who threatened to sue last summer when their kids didn't get into their first choice schools.

In light of these threats, the school district reconsidered the integration component in the fall but decided that it did comply with Initiative 200. "We think it's legal," says Schaad-Lamphere

Carlson says no way. "Civil rights are always simple," he observes. According to him, if you want to go to Eckstein, it's a violation of your civil rights if you can't because you're white.

Carlson may be in for a rude awakening in court, though, where civil rights have historically been inconveniently complicated. "The courts have viewed K-12 (assignment) differently" than hiring and college admissions, says Maree Sneed, a Washington, DC, lawyer who has represented school districts in a rash of anti-integration cases that have recently sprung up around the country. "School districts can decide to make race a factor" for admission to a particular school, says Sneed, as long as all children have equal access to the system as a whole. For example, Sneed says, take the suit some California parents brought against the UCLA Laboratory School, a public school where the university's student teachers learn their trade firsthand. The university, which does not want to graduate teachers who are unprepared to work in diverse settings, has quotas for white, black, Asian-American, and Latino students. The plaintiffs in the suit argued that the university was violating Proposition 209, California's version of I-200. According to Sneed, the plaintiffs lost and then lost again in September on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, which would hear an appeal of Carlson's suit if it gets to that point.

Carlson, though, argues a more likely precedent for his case is a successful suit against the school district in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a judge named Robert Potter ruled last summer that the district's forced busing was unnecessary and unfair. There's beautiful irony in Potter's decision, since thirty years earlier the same court (different judge) ordered Charlotte to implement busing in a case which went all the way to a federal court and spurred the controversial busing programs that soon became the norm in American cities. But is Carlson wise to bank on Potter's example? According to the Charlotte Observer, Potter was an outspoken critic of busing as a conservative young lawyer in the early '70s and became a Reagan appointee to the bench in the '80s after supporting Dutch's presidential campaign. And even if Potter's opinion holds up on appeal, Charlotte's aggressive and pervasive integration policy of busing students citywide seems like such a different animal from Seattle's "watered-down desegregation policy" (as outgoing school board member Ellen Roe has called it) that a Washington judge may not see parallels between the two.

So what will change if Carlson wins? Not much, says veteran education activist Kathy Baxter. She says that Carlson's claims notwithstanding, Seattle parents' mistrust of the school district goes far deeper than concerns about the integration policy. Baxter was one of the activists who put a "Schools First" initiative on the ballot back in the '80s that would have done away with the busing system then in place (though the initiative passed, it wasn't until John Stanford became superintendent in 1995 that busing finally disappeared). But Baxter says her motivations, and the motivations of the people she worked with, had nothing to do with the suit Carlson is bringing now. Busing, she says, hurt minority students the most because it frightened so many white kids out of the district and into private schools. Carlson's suit, she admits, will appeal to both conservatives and liberals who don't want their kids to be excluded from Eckstein, or wherever, on the basis of race. Still, she points out, many Seattle parents who dislike the current integration policy also distrust Carlson. "He doesn't understand [integration] on a human level. He understands it on an agenda level," she says. And once his suit is over, she predicts, the system will still be rife with too many bad teachers and principals and a culture that values teachers' paychecks and promotions over education, as well as (if Carlson wins) schools that might be slightly more segregated. She doesn't believe Carlson is suing in order to improve Seattle's schools. The suit, says Baxter, is "right down the line of what he needs to do to maintain his profile."

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