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Wednesday, June 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Race's enduring impact on public education

Fifty-two years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision integrated public schools, diversity in classrooms remains a frustrating, fractious and unnatural occurrence.

The struggle continues as school districts invoke mandatory busing and student assignments based in part on race to achieve a semblance of racial balance.

They do it to make good on the promises of Brown to provide every child, regardless of color, a good education.

This is the reality justices of the U.S. Supreme Court must understand if they plan to take a position on the Seattle School District's use of racial tiebreakers in enrollment.

The lawsuit that brought this issue before the court is not the best example of the philosophical and legal debates over race's role in education. Peel back the layers of the six-year-old suit bought by Parents Involved in Community Schools and little more exists than one parent's false sense of entitlement and a bevy of lawyers eager to star before the highest court in the land.

If justices want to set an education precedent in the vein of Brown, they will have to address the system's inequalities, which still fall firmly along racial and economic lines.

Study after study shows the following:

• Minority children tend to fare worse in public schools, including in Seattle.

• Their drop-out rate is far higher than their white counterparts' rate.

• They receive more and tougher disciplinary action than their white counterparts, even for the same infraction.

• They tend to be underrepresented in the academic areas that make public schools great, from advanced classes to extracurricular activities such as band and orchestra.

• Schools with high concentrations of minority students tend to have teachers and principals with the least amount of professional experience.

Families of all ethnicities already know these things and they tend to avoid minority schools, deepening those schools' isolation and forcing school leaders into the role of integrationists.

So, dear justices: Before you consider dismantling Seattle's racial tiebreaker system, consider what you'll use to replace it.

To get to that answer, justices will have to sidestep the temper tantrum of a few parents who didn't get their precious little ones into the right school. They should delve instead into the question of why the right schools tend to be white and how public schools can remain places of equality despite this.

The court's spotlight on race and public schools is bound to start a national discussion. Good. Soon, one in five children born in America will be of color. It is past time to consider whether our public system includes or excludes them.

Much mockery was made on talk radio airwaves and in print over a Seattle School District Web site that tried unsuccessfully to stake out a piece of the debate. The site's authors attempted to define racism in schools but they veered into the ridiculous when they cited as racist requiring students to use standard English.

But some examples of public education's exclusion of children of color were dead-on. A teacher using the descriptor flesh-toned isn't racist but is guilty of ignorance. Flesh comes in many tones, making flesh-toned an outdated and meaningless phrase.

Another example on the Web site was the scarcity of minorities among the great producers of works in literature, music and the arts assigned to kids. Again, I don't see racism. A student taught the works of Monet and Picasso but not Diego Rivera isn't a product of a racist institution, but rather a deficient one.

The Supreme Court may think it is pondering Seattle's tiebreakers, but the elephant in the courtroom is the enduring impact of race on public education. A half century after the Brown decision, some kids continue to suffer for no other reason than their race. If race is going to play a role in hurting kids, shouldn't school leaders be able to make it play a role in helping kids?

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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