Parents Involved v. Seattle School Dist. 1

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
Citation377 F.3d 949
Docket NumberNo. 01-35450.,01-35450.
PartiesPARENTS INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, a Washington nonprofit corporation, Plaintiff-Counter-Defendant-Appellant, v. SEATTLE SCHOOL DISTRICT, NO. 1, a political subdivision of the State of Washington; Joseph Olchefske, in his official capacity as superintendent; Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, in her official capacity as President of the Board of Directors of Seattle Public Schools; Donald Nielsen, in his official capacity as Vice President of the Board of Directors of Seattle Public Schools; Steven Brown; Jan Kumasaka; Michael Preston; Nancy Waldman, in their official capacities as members of the Board of Directors, Defendants-Counter-Claimants-Appellees.
Decision Date16 April 2002

Daniel B. Ritter and Harry J.F. Korrell (argued), Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Seattle, WA, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Michael Madden (argued) and Carol Sue Janes, Bennett Bigelow & Leedom, P.S., and Mark S. Green, Office of the General Counsel, Seattle School District No. 1, Seattle, WA, for the defendant-appellees.

Sharon L. Browne, Pacific Legal Foundation, Sacramento, CA, and Russell C. Brooks, Pacific Legal Foundation, Bellevue, WA, for amici curiae Pacific Legal Foundation, American Civil Rights Institute, American Civil Rights Union, and Center for Equal Opportunity.

Paul J. Lawrence, Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, Seattle, WA, for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington; Barbara Jacobs Rothstein, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-00-01205-BJR.

Before REAVLEY,* O'SCANNLAIN, and GRABER, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge O'SCANNLAIN; Dissent by Judge GRABER

O'SCANNLAIN, Circuit Judge.

Following the Washington Supreme Court's resolution of certified state-law questions, we must decide whether the use of race in determining which students will be admitted to oversubscribed high schools in Seattle, Washington, violates the federal Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.


This opinion marks the fourth time a federal court has addressed the Seattle Public Schools' use of an explicit "racial tiebreaker" in choosing which student applicants it will admit to the City's most popular public high schools. See Parents Involved in Cmty. Schs. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 137 F.Supp.2d 1224 (2001) [Parents Involved I], rev'd, 285 F.3d 1236 (9th Cir.2002) [Parents Involved II], withdrawn, 294 F.3d 1084 (9th Cir.2002), certifying questions, 294 F.3d 1085 (9th Cir. 2002) [Parents Involved III]. We draw the following restatement of facts largely from Parents Involved II.


Seattle School District Number 1 (the "School District") operates ten public high schools: Ballard, Chief Sealth, Cleveland, Franklin, Garfield, Ingraham, Nathan Hale, Rainier Beach, Roosevelt, and West Seattle. Four of these (Ballard, Ingraham, Nathan Hale, and Roosevelt) are located north of downtown Seattle; of the remaining six, five (Chief Sealth, Cleveland, Franklin, Garfield, and Rainier Beach) are located south of downtown, and one (West Seattle) is located directly west of downtown.

These schools vary widely in quality, as measured by such factors as standardized test scores,1 numbers of college preparatory and Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered and the availability of an Internal Baccalaureate (IB) program, percentages of students taking AP courses and SATs, percentages of graduates who attend college, Seattle Times college-preparedness rankings, University of Washington rankings, and disciplinary statistics. Moreover, some of the schools offer unique educational programs or opportunities not offered in other schools.2

The School District has never been segregated by law. However, due to Seattle's racially imbalanced housing patterns,3 if Seattle's children were simply assigned to the high schools nearest their homes, those schools would tend to reflect such imbalance. That is, the demographic profile of the individual high schools would not mirror the demographic makeup of the city's student population as a whole.4 As part of its continuing efforts to prevent such imbalance and to promote racial diversity in its high schools, the School District has adopted an open choice plan instead of simply assigning students to the high schools nearest their homes. Pursuant to this system, each student may choose to attend any of the ten high schools in the city, so long as there is room available in that school.

The District's open choice plan provides for a multi-step application process. Each student is first asked to rank the high schools he or she would like to attend. If a student is not admitted to his or her first-choice school because that school is full, the School District attempts to assign him or her to his or her second-choice school, and so on. If a student is not admitted to any of his or her chosen schools, he or she receives a mandatory assignment to a school with available space.

Not surprisingly, a significant problem arises when a school becomes "oversubscribed" — that is, when more students want to attend that school than there are spaces available. For the academic year 2000-01, five of the School District's high schools were oversubscribed and five were undersubscribed.5 The magnitude of oversubscription during the 2000-01 school year underscores its problematic nature: Approximately 82 percent of students selected one of the oversubscribed high schools as their first choice, while only about 18 percent picked one of the undersubscribed high schools as their first choice.

To resolve the dilemma of oversubscription, the School District's high school assignment plan uses a series of four "tiebreakers" to determine which students will be admitted to each oversubscribed school. The first tiebreaker gives a preference to students with siblings already attending the requested school. This tiebreaker accounts for somewhere between 15 percent and 20 percent of high school assignments. If a school is still oversubscribed after applying this first tiebreaker, the School District proceeds to a second tiebreaker, which is based entirely on race. For purposes of the racial tiebreaker, students are deemed to be of the race specified in their registration forms, which ask parents to identify their child's race. Because registration must be completed in person by a parent, if a parent declines to specify a racial category, the School District assigns the student a category based on a visual inspection of the parent (and, if present, the student) at the time of registration. It is this second — racial — tiebreaker that spawned the present suit.

Use of the racial tiebreaker is designed to balance the racial makeup of the city's public high schools. Accordingly, if an oversubscribed school's demographic profile deviates from the overall demography of Seattle's student population (approximately 40 percent white and 60 percent non-white) by more than a set number of percentage points, the School District designates that school "integration positive." The racial tiebreaker is then applied in the course of determining admissions to such schools, so that students whose race (coded by the School District simply as white or non-white) will push an integration positive school closer to the desired racial ratio are automatically admitted.6 Thus, at Franklin (for instance), whites are admitted preferentially because they are white; and at Ballard, non-whites are admitted preferentially because they are not white.7 Ultimately, the School District's use of this racial tiebreaker determines where about 10 percent of applicants will be admitted.

Once all students of the preferred racial category are admitted to an oversubscribed high school, any remaining "ties" are broken by resort to a third variable: distance. Quite simply, applicants are admitted on the basis of the mileage between their homes and the school to which they seek admission, with those who live closest admitted first. Although a fourth tiebreaker exists — a random lottery — it rarely is invoked because distances are calculated to one hundredth of a mile for purposes of the preceding tiebreaker.


Parents Involved in Community Schools ("Parents") is "a nonprofit corporation formed by parents whose children have been or may be denied admission to the high schools of their choosing solely because of race." It commenced this legal action in July of 2000, contending that the School District's use of the racial tiebreaker for high school admissions is illegal under both state and federal law. Specifically, Parents alleged that by using race to decide who will be admitted to the oversubscribed high schools, the School District engages in illegal racial discrimination prohibited by the Washington Civil Rights Act ("Initiative 200"),8 the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,9 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.10

Both Parents and the School District moved for summary judgment on all claims; neither contended that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment. In a published opinion dated April 6, 2001, the district court upheld the use of the racial tiebreaker under both state and federal law, granting the School District's motion and denying the Parents's. See Parents Involved I, 137 F.Supp.2d at 1240. Parents timely filed an appeal in this court and, on April 16, 2002, we issued an opinion reversing the district court's decision. Acting "in our constitutionally ordained role as oracles of Washington law," Parents Involved II, 285 F.3d at 1243, we prophesied that the School District's use of the racial...

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6 cases
  • Parents Involved in Community v. Seattle School
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit
    • October 20, 2005
    ...Plan violated the Equal Protection Clause because it was not narrowly tailored. Parents Involved in Comty. Schs. v. Seattle Sch. Dist., No. 1, 377 F.3d 949 (9th Cir.2004) ("Parents V"). We granted en banc rehearing and now affirm the district court.11 II. Discussion A. Strict Scrutiny We re......
  • Cavalier ex rel. Cavalier v. Caddo Parish School
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit
    • March 1, 2005
    ...(2003), it is by no means clear that it could be such at or below the high school level. But see Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 377 F.3d 949, 964 (9th Cir.2004) (applying Grutter to hold that diversity in the public high school context can be a compelling govern......
  • Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • June 28, 2007
    ...panel of the Ninth Circuit then again reversed the District Court, this time ruling on the federal constitutional question. Parents Involved VI, 377 F.3d 949 (2004). The panel determined that while achieving racial diversity and avoiding racial isolation are compelling government interests,......
  • Teague v. Ark. Bd. of Educ.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Arkansas
    • June 8, 2012
    ...are compelling interests, the plan was not narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 377 F.3d 949 (9th Cir.2004). The Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc, and overruled the panel, upholding the plan. Parents Involved in Cmt......
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