WASHINGTON (AFP) - Little Joshua McDonald only wanted to go to the kindergarten closest his house when his mother challenged Louisville, Kentucky authorities on his school assignment.
But he got much more: His case goes before the highest US court Monday as a test of 50 years of policy that has forced blacks and whites to travel across neighborhoods, towns and cities to ensure that the country's schools are integrated and children of all colors enjoy equal education opportunities.
The test case is brought to the Supreme Court by conservative organizations and white families in Louisville and Seattle, Washington, who say that the race-based policies that limit their choice of schools treat students unfairly and so are unconstitutional.
The case will challenge the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision, "Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka," which ended what was then the widespread practice of segregating children into schools by race.
The court held that even if the education was equal in every way, separation by itself is unequal treatment.
In a 2003 case involving the University of Michigan, the high court ruled that a "compelling state interest" allows consideration of race as a factor in selecting student applicants to promote racial diversity, even if the policy seemed to disadvantage whites.
But the vote by the nine justices was a bare five to four, and was tempered by the statement that such policies must be "narrowly tailored".
What is different this time is that the court has a new chief justice, John Roberts, and a new justice, Samuel Alito, both conservatives who have shown some hostility to race-based school placements even if the goal is to further integration of society.
Meanwhile, a key judge who joined the majority in the 2003 decision, Sandra Day O'Connor, has retired.
In the newest challenge to "Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka", the parents of white children argue that race has been the principal qualification for deciding school placement while other factors are devalued.The court's decision could affect widespread "positive discrimination" policies -- those which give special advantages to disadvantaged minorities over whites -- at educational institutions at every level, from pre-school to university graduate school.
In Joshua McDonald's case, lawyers argue that, always classified by his race, he will never be able to demonstrate his scholarly or other achievements when being considered for admissions in the future.
But the Louisville and Seattle school systems argue that students like McDonald are still going to school and that, in theory, they will receive equal educations at any school they are put in.
Meanwhile, they also insist that policies designed to make sure schools are racially integrated are good for the society, even if some students are not allowed to go to the school of their choice.A court decision for the parents would effectively reverse a 1975 federal court order for Louisville to integrate its schools.The case to be heard Monday represents a growing challenge to proactive race-based integration policies around the country known as "affirmative action".
In 1996 California voters backed a ballot initiative ordering that race, gender and origin could not be criteria in deciding public jobs or contracts. Other states have followed suit with similar measures, the most recent Michigan in the November 7 elections.