WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court on Monday wrestled with voluntary integration plans in public schools, asking whether Seattle's ``Open Choice'' program is an acceptable move toward student diversity or another name for illegal racial quotas.
At the start of two hours of argument, the justices referred repeatedly to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that permitted the limited consideration of race to attain a diverse student body on the college level.
Does Seattle's program go too far in assigning some students to schools they didn't request? the justices wanted to know in questioning lawyers for the school district, the Bush administration and white parents whose children were assigned to high schools with heavy minority enrollment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy was among those expressing deep skepticism about Seattle's program.
The district seems to be telling its students that ``everybody can get a meal,'' but that only certain people can get ``dessert,'' Kennedy said. Kennedy was referring to the fact that some students have been reassigned based on their race to schools they didn't ask to attend. The question, said Kennedy, is whether a student can get into the school the student really prefers.
Attorney Michael Madden, representing the school district, said race is but one factor, that it is relied on only in some instances and then only at the end of a lengthy process.
Amid the arguments, pro-affirmative action demonstrators bearing ``Fight For Equality'' placards descended on the Supreme Court.
Parents in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle are challenging school assignment plans that factor in a student's race in an effort to have individual school populations approximate the racial makeup of the entire system. Federal appeals courts have upheld both programs.
On the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court, several hundred of pro-affirmative action demonstrators marched in a brisk wind to dramatize their issue. A parent-teachers group from Chicago and several civil rights groups were among those sponsoring the demonstration.
Demonstrators chanted ``Equal education, not segregation'' and ``We won't go to the back of the bus, integration is a must.'' Some held signs that read ``Stop racism now.'' Among the crowd were representatives of the National Organization for Women, the NAACP and students from Howard University.
Though outnumbered, there were some in the crowd from the other side.
``Regardless of how well-motivated, allowing the state to engineer racial mixing only creates racial stereotypes and increases racial tension,'' said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm. ``The court needs to put an end to state-mandated tinkering with race.''
The school policies in contention are designed to keep schools from segregating along the same lines as neighborhoods. In Seattle, only high school students are affected. Louisville's plan applies systemwide.
``The plan has prevented the resegregation that inevitably would result from the community's segregated housing patterns and that most likely would produce many schools that might be perceived as 'failing,''' the Seattle school district said in its brief to the high court.
The Bush administration has taken the side of the parents who are suing the school districts, much as it intervened on behalf of college and graduate students who challenged affirmative action policies before the Supreme Court in 2003.
In 2003, the court upheld race-conscious admissions in higher education in a 5-4 opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
O'Connor, however, has since retired and been replaced by conservative Justice Samuel Alito. Lawyers on both sides of the issue presume that Alito is inclined to oppose the school plans.
About 400 of the nation's 15,000 school districts are under court orders to desegregate. It is believed that hundreds more voluntarily take race into account in drawing boundaries, deciding where to locate new buildings and in other ways.
Seattle has tried for years to achieve racial diversity in its schools in the face of persistent segregated housing patterns. The city's schools have never been subject to court order. Seattle put the assignment system at issue in place in 1998, but suspended it after parents sued.
The Louisville schools, with a history of state-imposed segregation, were under federal court supervision for 25 years. The Jefferson County Board of Education, which encompasses Louisville,came up with its own plan to maintain integrated schools shortly thereafter.
But the policy denigrates children's self-worth by color-coding them throughout their school years, said the legal brief for Crystal Meredith, the Louisville parent who sued after her son was denied his first choice of which school to attend.
The cases are Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 05-908; and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 05-915.