The parents who challenged Seattle Public Schools' use of race in assigning students to schools won their seven-year legal battle Thursday...

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The parents who challenged Seattle Public Schools’ use of race in assigning students to schools won their seven-year legal battle Thursday in the nation’s highest court.

In a closely watched case that will affect hundreds of school districts across the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Seattle’s racial tiebreaker and a similar policy in Jefferson County, Ky., violated the Constitution’s right of equal protection.

The court’s first ruling on race and education in many years was celebrated by those who favor race-blind policies, and sharply criticized by many civil-rights groups as a further erosion of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that outlawed school segregation.

Kathleen Brose, one of the Seattle parents who filed the suit, said she was “relieved and vindicated” by the decision.

“It shouldn’t matter what your skin color is, what your family income is, [or] if you have disabilities,” she said. “If this nation is looking to move beyond race, we’re going to have to stop using race as a decision on which school kids are going to get into.”

But James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, echoed the disappointment of many organizations and Democratic politicians such as presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“It is a sad day for our Constitution, our country and our educational system,” he said. “This kind of decision harkens back to the old law of separate but equal, which of course isn’t equal.”

Seattle school officials, however, chose to emphasize the positive: The court upheld diversity as an important goal of public schools.

“We take heart in the court’s affirmation of the broader goal,” said Superintendent Raj Manhas. The decision, he said, “reaffirmed that diversity matters.”

The case was announced on the last day of the Supreme Court’s term. The majority included Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the main dissent, a long, strongly worded opinion in which he said he feared the decision would break the promise of racial equality that started with Brown. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer also were in the minority.

“This is a decision,” Breyer wrote, “that the court and the nation will come to regret.”

Seattle district officials pledged to continue to work for the school diversity that Manhas said benefits all students.

They also seemed to appreciate the fact that Kennedy broke ranks with the majority in saying districts can adopt policies to encourage a diverse student body.

While Roberts, in the majority opinion, wrote that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Kennedy said school districts should not have to “accept the status quo of racial isolation in schools.”

The decision, he wrote, “should not prevent school districts from continuing the important work of bringing together students of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.”

Yet while the justices affirmed the value of diversity, the decision took away one of the tools school districts commonly use to achieve it.

“It’s a decision that creates new burdens and barriers on school districts, but it does not close the door,” said Gary Orfield, co-founder of a leading research center on civil rights that recently moved from Harvard University to UCLA.

“It’s definitely not a step forward,” he said. “How big a step backward depends on what school districts do about it, and what the lower courts do about it.”

Nine university-based civil-rights centers, including the University of Washington’s Center for Multicultural Education, issued a statement saying they will help school districts figure out new ways to foster diversity.

Some worry, however, that Kennedy’s opinion may lead to more confusion than clarity. “There’s going to be more litigation rather than less as a result of this ruling,” said Neil Siegel, professor of law and political science at Duke University.

The Seattle case was filed in 2000 by white parents, including Brose, whose children did not get into Ballard High. At the time, there were more students who wanted to get into the school than Ballard could fit in its freshman class, and the school’s racial balance deviated more than 10 percent from the district average. That triggered the district’s racial tiebreaker, in which students who would bring the school’s racial mix back into balance got assigned over those who wouldn’t.

The district suspended use of the tiebreaker in the 2002-03 school year, after the parents, who organized a group called Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) filed suit. It hasn’t used it since.

Over the four years the racial tiebreaker was in effect, district officials estimate about 1,000 students were assigned to schools based on their race. The tiebreaker mainly benefited students of color, but not exclusively.

The tiebreaker never affected schools that did not have a waiting list. In the ruling, the justices noted that the district, despite its arguments that it wanted to promote diversity, did not have policies to make changes in the makeup of its most segregated schools, such as Rainier Beach and Cleveland high schools, where less than 10 percent of the student body is white.

The schools where the tiebreaker came into play are less diverse than they were — although the change hasn’t been as great as many feared at first.

The tiebreaker, for example, benefited minority students at Ballard High. Ballard is 62.7 percent white today, compared with 56.7 percent in 2001-02. Franklin High, where the tiebreaker benefited white students, is 9.2 percent white today, compared with 21 percent in 2001-02.

In previous years, the district also sought to integrate its schools through forced busing and mandatory school assignments. Seattle was the first major city to adopt a voluntary plan to desegregate schools.

In a news conference in which she fought back tears, Brose repeated what she’s often said: She pursued the case because of the principle involved. “They teach our kids in the schools that discrimination is wrong. You can’t have it both ways. You just can’t.”

Harry Korrell, attorney for the parents, said school districts that are not under court orders to desegregate “no longer have any business making school assignments based on race.”

Gary Ikeda, the district’s general counsel, said managing the case was a “daunting and humbling responsibility.” As it wound its way to the Supreme Court, he said, “the enormity and importance of the case became even more clear to me.”

“I’m thankful for this decision,” he said.

Times staff reporters David Bowermaster, Alex Fryer and Judy Chia Hui Hsu contributed to this report.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or