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L.A. Unified Sued Over Race Issues

Anti-affirmative action group says the district's efforts to integrate schools violate Proposition 209, which bans racial preferences.

October 14, 2005|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

An anti-affirmative action group filed suit earlier this week against the Los Angeles Unified School District, charging that its efforts to racially integrate schools are in violation of Proposition 209, the 1996 statewide initiative that banned preferential treatment by race.

Two lawsuits were filed Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court by the American Civil Rights Foundation, which is associated with Proposition 209 author Ward Connerly. The suits take aim at three desegregation tools used by the district: magnet schools, voluntary busing and the consideration of race in determining where teachers will work.

If successful, the suits could have a profound effect on the nation's second-largest school district, which has struggled to integrate schools even as the percentage of non-Latino whites has dwindled from a majority of all students in the 1960s to just 9% today.

Proposition 209 has had a seismic effect on California's public colleges and universities, which no longer are allowed to admit students based on race. But only recently have its advocates turned their eyes on the K-12 public school system.

Proposition 209 "tells the school district they can't use discrimination for any reason, because the victims are going to be the students or the teachers," said Sharon Browne, an attorney for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the complaints on behalf of Connerly's group. "We should be providing the best possible education for all our kids, and that's what the focus of the school district should be on."

Kevin Reed, general counsel for the Los Angeles school district, said the lawsuits were baseless because the desegregation programs were mandated by a federal court. That order trumps Proposition 209, he said.

"I'm frankly surprised that the PLF has bothered to file these lawsuits," Reed said.

He said the Pacific Legal Foundation recently lost a similar court case that alleged a violation of Proposition 209. That case, now before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, involved a white teacher at Van Nuys High School who argued that he was prevented from switching jobs because of his race.

Browne said the federal court order mandating desegregation in the Los Angeles schools was no longer in effect. Reed said that it was no longer being actively supervised by a federal judge, but that it remained in effect.

The Los Angeles school district agreed to a voluntary desegregation plan in 1981, two years after ending a contentious, three-year experiment with mandatory busing. As part of the plan, mandated by a federal judge, the school district created the programs being attacked by Connerly's group.

The largest of these is the magnet school program, which was aimed at attracting a diverse student body to niche schools that offered specialized curricula.

As of the last school year, there were 53,329 students enrolled in magnets out of a total district enrollment of 742,090.

There are magnet schools devoted to the performing arts, science and medicine, foreign languages, the humanities and honors programs aimed at high-performing students.

Though magnets are voluntary, they are required to accept students according to a formula aimed at achieving racial and ethnic diversity. This means that white students compete with white students for a given number of slots in every magnet, and nonwhites compete with other nonwhites.

Similarly, the much smaller Permits with Transportation program provides busing to about 4,000 students on a voluntary basis so they can attend schools outside their neighborhoods. It too is based on achieving a racial balance in the schools because most of the students come from predominantly nonwhite campuses.

Connerly's group filed one suit against the district challenging the two programs and another targeting the district's policy of considering race when it assigns teachers to schools. Like the policies aimed at students, that policy is an attempt to achieve racial balance in the district's faculty ranks.

Under pressure from the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Sacramento Unified School District agreed last week to modify its collective bargaining agreement with teachers to remove a similar provision requiring schools to maintain integrated staffs.

The foundation also represents parents in Orange County who sued the Capistrano Unified School District in June, charging that it violated the provisions of Proposition 209 when it redrew school boundaries to create a more even racial balance.

Connerly said his organization had only recently turned its attention to public schools because it had previously been preoccupied with defending the constitutionality of Proposition 209.

"This is a big one," he said of the action against the Los Angeles district, "because if we prevail here, I think it really settles some nagging questions for the state and the nation."

He added that he believed court-ordered desegregation has been harmful to children, African Americans in particular. "I believe that the use of race just reinforces the academic gap and causes these kids to perform at the stereotyped level, which is, 'You can't do this,' " he said.

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