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Still unequal

YESTERDAY'S Supreme Court ruling against two public school desegregation plans took useful tools away from school districts, and revealed once again the court's conservative tilt. The public can debate the court's legal reasoning, but for school districts the crucial tasks are still to find legal ways to end segregation and to produce high levels of achievement for all students.

The court looked at desegregation plans in Seattle and in Louisville. Both cities had been sued for having segregated school systems. In both cities, the school boards proposed plans that used race as a factor in students' assignments to create more integrated schools, and then modified the plans. As the four dissenting justices point out, the "plans have evolved over time in ways that progressively diminish the plans' use of explicit race-conscious criteria."

What the majority of justices saw, however, was discrimination plain and simple: children denied access to schools because of their skin color.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-to-4 decision.

This is a pithy slogan, but a gross oversimplification that ignores social reality.

It had seemed like a new era when the Supreme Court ruled against racially separate but equal schools in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, and African-American students marched past raging crowds into formerly all-white schools. But the problem of school segregation never died. Researchers at the Civil Rights Project, formerly at Harvard and now at UCLA, find that "the isolation of Latino and black students from white students in public schools has substantially increased since the 1980s." And often these minority students are in schools that lack such resources as Advanced Placement courses and modern educational technology.

Fortunately, the court did not entirely ban using race as a factor in desegregation efforts . Rather, the majority said that Seattle and Louisville had failed to show the compelling need for their "extreme means." This leaves open the possibility that other school districts have or can create constitutionally viable desegregation plans.

Still, uncertainty remains.

The dissenting justices write that the decision will "obstruct" state and local efforts to fight resegregation. This could be a threat for Lynn, which has a voluntary desegregation plan that takes race into account, and for other local programs. Massachusetts officials are reviewing the ruling to determine its impact.

Nonetheless, officials should continue to press for diverse schools. It is both a moral and economic necessity to bridge the divides of race.