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Obama administration issues diversity guidelines for schools

December 2, 2011 |  7:31 pm

The Obama administration has released new guidelines aimed at encouraging school districts and colleges to keep and pursue policies that promote racial diversity. In the process, they withdrew directives put forward during the administration of George W. Bush.

“Diverse learning environments promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes, and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said in a statement Friday. “The guidance announced today will aid educational institutions in their efforts to provide true equality of opportunity.

“Racial isolation ... denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in a global economy, where employers, coworkers, and customers will be increasingly diverse,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The new guidelines are more detailed than the ones they replaced and seek to reverse what officials characterized as a chilling effect on diversity programs based on cautious interpretations of Supreme Court rulings on integration efforts. The new rules even opened the door, in narrow circumstances, for race-based preferences, commonly known as affirmative action. The guidelines encourage the use of programs that are technically race neutral but informed by race, such as giving school admission preferences to students from a certain ZIP Code. Some school districts have used geography as a stand-in for race.

But the more common response to recent court decisions limiting or banning race-based preferences has been increasing segregation, some experts said.

“The Bush guidance was very negative on these issues and did not accurately reflect the actual decisions” of the Supreme Court, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. More than a third of black and Latino students attend “intensely segregated schools,” where white students account for 10% or less of the enrollment. Overall segregation is at levels greater than in 1968, he said.

L.A. Unified has maintained its race-based integration program on the grounds that it is obeying a court order. The program relies on voluntary enrollment in magnet schools. But the district also has avoided updating its approach to integration for fear that too many changes could result in a successful legal challenge.

The new guidelines, jointly issued by the Justice Department and the Department of Education, generally received praise from civil rights groups.

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-- Howard Blume

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