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High court to examine race-balancing schools

Louisville, Ky., and Seattle districts promote diversity by using race to determine where students attend.

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Nearly three years after its landmark ruling upholding a race-based admissions plan at the University of Michigan Law School, the US Supreme Court has agreed to consider to what extent race may be used to balance white and nonwhite enrollment in public schools.

On Monday, the high court agreed to examine cases involving two school districts attempting to maintain racially integrated schools.

One involves a school board plan in Seattle that seeks to achieve a rough balance of 40 percent white and 60 percent nonwhite enrollment at each of the city's 10 public high schools.

The second is a school district in Louisville, Ky., that set broad guidelines that the black student population of any particular school should range between 15 percent and 50 percent.

Both cases will be closely watched for indications of how the new lineup of justices - including the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Justice Samuel Alito - may shift the court's jurisprudence on the constitutionality of affirmative action plans.

Justice O'Connor provided the key swing vote and authored the landmark 5-4 decision upholding the University of Michigan Law School's admissions plan. The majority opinion recognized that diversity in education can be a compelling interest, justifying the use of race in the student selection process.

The decision drew sharp dissents from four members of the court's conservative wing, who wrote that the Michigan plan violated the Constitution's equal protection mandate by relying too heavily on race as a factor in the admissions process.

At issue in both the Seattle and Louisville cases is how the high court's 2003 Michigan Law School decision should be applied in public school districts seeking to achieve diversity.

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