Resource: Untoward Consequences: The Ironic Legacy of Keyes v. School District No. 1

By: Rachel Moran

October 8, 2013

Denv. U.L. Rev.

The Keyes case began with high hopes that desegregation would lead to educational equity for black and Latino students in the Denver Public Schools. The lawsuit made history by successfully using circumstantial evidence to establish intentional discrimination and bring courtordered busing to a school system outside the South. In the intervening years, that initial success became laden with irony. Because Denver was a tri ethnic community of whites, blacks, and Latinos, the litigation revealed the complexities of pursuing reform in a school district not defined by a history of black–white relations.

The courts had to decide whether Latinos would count as white when measuring racial balance in the Denver schools. This approach was rejected, but as the demographics of the school district shifted, Latino students came to dominate the schools. Whatever the formal classification scheme, the children available to introduce diversity into predominantly black schools were mainly Latino. Similarly, the case highlighted tensions between desegregation and bilingual education when special programs depended on concentrating English language learners in particular schools. The courts made clear that bilingual education was not a substitute for desegregation, but when Denver school officials sought to terminate the desegregation decree, they signed a consent agreement to provide language programs as evidence of good faith. Long after Denver’s public schools reverted to being racially and ethnically identifiable, these programs persisted. In effect, bilingual education was used to mitigate the impact of educational isolation that followed the close of the desegregation decree.

The Keyes litigation was protracted and the aims ambitious, but in the end, the plaintiffs’ lofty goals were not realized. In general, graduation rates and achievement test scores for black and Latino students in the Denver schools still lag behind those of white peers. A series of re forms—from merit pay for teachers to new charter schools—have failed to close the gap. So far, colorblind political initiatives seem as ineffectual as color-conscious judicial interventions when tackling intractable educational inequalities.