School officials around the country are asking that question following a Supreme Court decision rejecting racial integration plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky.
The 5-4 ruling prohibited those district plans but didn't entirely shut the door on using race as a factor when making decisions about what schools should look like.
"It's clear if race is the sole and decisive factor for where a school child is told to go to school, that's off limits," Court TV's Savannah Guthrie told CBS Early Show Anchor Harry Smith. "But Justice Kennedy, that all-important swing vote, left a little bit of wiggle room here."
The ruling brought complaints that it allegedly betrayed the Supreme Court's most acclaimed ruling — the 53-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools.
Justice Anthony Kennedy went along with the court's four most conservative members in rejecting the Louisville and Seattle plans. However, he stopped short of saying race can never be a component of school efforts to achieve diversity.
"A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population," Kennedy said. "Race may be one component of that diversity."
But Kennedy's opinion had some proponents of the integration plans cheering.
"My overall view is that we dodged a bullet," said William Taylor, chairman of the Washington-based Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, who added that he expected a much more sweeping rejection of race as a factor in school district decision making.
Kennedy suggested race could be a factor in deciding where to build a new school and how to draw school attendance boundaries.
He also said districts should be able to find creative ways to achieve their goals without relying on widespread racial classification.
One idea gaining ground is for school officials to use family income as a way to integrate schools economically.
Since minorities are often more likely to be poorer then their white peers, this can produce racial integration, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington. Importantly, he added, it wouldn't be scrutinized legally so long as it didn't rely on race.
"That's bulletproof," Kahlenberg said. "Using economic status is perfectly legal."
About 40 school districts use income levels to make school assignments and that number is expected to rise following the court's ruling, Kahlenberg said.
Income isn't the only alternative to race that educators are considering using in hopes of creating more diverse schools.
In San Francisco, for example, school officials have used students' addresses and achievement levels when making school assignments as a way to create diversity.
In all, there are an estimated 1,000 school districts — or one in 15 nationwide — that have racial integration programs that are comprehensive and use race to make assignments like the ones ruled unconstitutional Thursday, said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University.
The court ruling appears to allow schools to try to bring about racial balance by building new schools in racially and ethnically mixed neighborhoods or in areas that border several neighborhoods in hopes of drawing in a diverse population.
But Wells said neighborhoods change over time and white families tend to leave schools when they become the minority group. "The minute the white parents perceive a school is 'too black,' they move or they put their kids in private schools," she said.
Wells said integration led to higher test scores for black students in the 1970s and into the 1980s, narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students. She said that gap then widened when integration efforts slowed.
Proponents of racially integrated schools say they are motivated for reasons beyond academics.
"We know that there are benefits of diversity. Those benefits are social and academic," said Vanderbilt University education researcher Claire Smrekar. "We know kids who attend racially integrated schools are far more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods and be employed in integrated workplaces."
But Ross Wiener, vice president of program and Policy at Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children, said even inside integrated schools segregation exists.
Wiener referred to a tendency for minorities to be more likely to attend special education classes, vocation classes and classes for limited English speakers than their white peers. They also are less likely to be placed in gifted or Advanced Placement courses.
"There's no question that racially diverse schools provide positive educational opportunities, but the fact is we've rarely taken advantage of those opportunities," he said. "In both integrated and racially isolated schools, Black and Hispanic students too often get assigned to weaker teachers and dumbed-down coursework."