Huntington Beach Union High School District will ask the state Supreme Court to decide the fate of its policy of denying student transfers in order to maintain racial balance in its schools.
The legal case could clarify how public primary and secondary schools are affected by Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that banned consideration of race and ethnicity in public education, thus ending affirmative action.
Two weeks ago, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana struck down the Huntington Beach district's policy, ruling that its attempt to keep a "racial and ethnic balance" was unconstitutional and violated Proposition 209.
"This opinion from the appellate court is a far departure from the past precedents the California Supreme Court has set prior to Proposition 209," said the school district's attorney David Larsen, adding that he believes the policy complies with the state education code.
Earlier this month the district's board voted 4-1 to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.
Proponents say the transfer policy allows for open enrollment and ensures racial integration. Critics counter that the policy discriminates against white students.
Many are surprised by the school district's decision to continue the legal battle, especially now, when funds are scarce. "It's egregious. They're not taking no for an answer," said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Sharon L. Browne, whose client, Donald Bruce Crawford, filed the lawsuit challenging the policy.
"The school district was supposed to amend its policies to comply with Prop. 209, and they have not done so," Browne said.
Larsen said the policy ensures that open enrollment transfers don't become a vehicle for "white flight," or create ethnically isolated schools. School district officials said the policy was necessary to stem racial segregation, and that the ill-feelings it created were inadvertent.
"Our intentions were very good, and we were trying to avoid racially isolated schools," said trustee Sallie Dashiell.
"But either way, it seems we run into discrimination issues."
Beginning in 1994, students could request transfers to any of the district's high schools.
After district officials saw many white students transferring out of schools with large ethnic populations, it revised the policy in 1999, forcing a 1-to-1 ratio to keep racial and ethnic balance on campuses.
Westminster and Ocean View high schools were most affected by the change.
Fountain Valley resident Crawford sued in 1999, alleging that the policy restricted transfers of white students from schools with large numbers of minorities, such as Westminster High School, which has a large Asian population.
Crawford wasn't the only one concerned. "I saw the racial quota policy as troublesome," said Matthew Harper, a trustee and the only dissenting vote against the decision to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court.
"Whenever that issue came up in our district, people expressed [that] they wanted to get rid of race identity politics," Harper said.
Some parents said the controversial transfer policy isn't a race issue.
After all, they said, it was developed and adopted by a community committee comprising district officials, students, teachers and parents.
"It's the problem of open enrollment," said Renee Van Arsdale, whose son, Alex, was denied a transfer. "I have compassion for the district. They want open enrollment, but every time they try to be sensitive to the state mandates for racial integration, they get sued.
" It's really a social issue," Van Arsdale said. "Kids want to go to the schools where their neighborhood friends go."