The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Seattle Public Schools' use of race as a deciding factor in assigning students to schools...

Share story

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down Seattle Public Schools’ use of race as a deciding factor in assigning students to schools. The ruling culminates a case that was filed almost seven years ago.

Q: What is the racial tiebreaker?

A: Officially known as the “integration tiebreaker,” the strategy evolved into its most recent incarnation in 1998-99 as part of the district’s school-choice system. It was used at the elementary, middle- and high-school levels until 2001-02, when it was used only in high schools. First, the district asked families to identify their preferred schools. When schools had more applicants than available seats, the district used a series of tiebreakers to assign students, giving siblings first priority. Then, in an attempt to make a school’s demographics mirror those of the district as a whole, a student’s race was used as a tiebreaker. In 1999, the district was made up of about 60 percent students of color. If a school’s demographics varied more than 10 percent from the district’s breakdown, and a student’s race helped bring a school’s demographic balance closer to that of the district, he or she was assigned to that school. District officials say about 300 students a year were affected.

Q: How did the tiebreaker work?

This week, save 90% on digital access.

A: In 1999, five high schools — Ballard, Nathan Hale and Roosevelt in North Seattle; Franklin in South Seattle and Garfield in the Central Area — had more applicants than they could accommodate. Ballard, for instance, would have been 67 percent white and 33 percent students of color without the tiebreaker that year, according to the district. With the tiebreaker, it became 46 percent white and 54 percent students of color, after 107 students of color were assigned to Ballard.

Q: Why was it used?

A: The tiebreaker has its roots in the civil-rights era.

In 1961, a committee of Central Area principals recommended a series of integration-oriented changes: recruiting more teachers of color, reducing class sizes and diversifying the curriculum.

Over the next decade, the district tried additional approaches to retain black and white families through transportation and themed academic programs.

Q: In the past, didn’t Seattle bus its students as a means of integration?

A: Yes. Seattle was the first major U.S. city to bus students without a court order.

Starting in 1978, the district for 10 years assigned and bused students to schools. Segregated housing patterns meant students were often bused across town in an attempt to achieve racially balanced schools, and hundreds of families ultimately left the district.

Q: What was the district’s enrollment breakdown then?

A: In 1978, Seattle schools were made up of 63 percent white students. Today, the district is 40 percent white.

In 1989, the School Board modified the busing system with a “controlled choice” plan that allowed families to rank their preferred schools. Race was used to give enrollment priority to students who would create diversity in schools.

The tiebreaker continued to evolve: In 1997, then-Superintendent John Stanford divided the district into elementary-school “clusters” and middle-school “regions” and made the high schools all-city draws. Race was de-emphasized. And in 1999, the district began using the latest version of the tiebreaker.

Q: So how did the tiebreaker end up in court?

A: Seattle parent Kathleen Brose formed Parents Involved in Community Schools and sued the district in 2000 after the tiebreaker determined which high school her daughter was assigned to. Though Brose’s daughter chose Ballard — the school closest to her home — she was assigned to Franklin, her fourth-ranked choice, because she is white.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.