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Officials ponder meaning of ruling for L.A. Unified

Some experts say the school system is immune from the decision's effects, but others disagree. A big question: What about the magnet program?

June 29, 2007|Howard Blume and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

Legal experts were split on what effect Thursday's Supreme Court ruling will ultimately have on integration efforts in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- including the district's popular magnet school program.

District officials said Thursday that they believe they are insulated by a court order that places them beyond the reach of the high court decision, but opponents of L.A.'s integration efforts said they think the ruling could give them additional ammunition for challenging the program.

And even the school district acknowledges that it may have to make changes.

"The Supreme Court didn't expressly outlaw state court-ordered programs," said Peter James, an attorney representing L.A. Unified. "But reading between the lines, it seemed to suggest that any overt use of race was going to be at least questionable. We've heard what the law of the land is. The district just can't ignore that and wait to be sued."

Still, he added, parents concerned about their child's enrollment in a magnet program need not panic: "Very likely no decision is going to affect next year's magnet assignment, but the school district will be looking at its admissions policy for 2008."

Most California magnet programs are unlikely to be affected by the ruling because they already have to comply with state law, which forbids using race as an overt factor in school enrollment at public institutions, officials elsewhere said. Only districts operating integration plans under court orders are exempt from that law.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling specifically struck down magnet school programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. Seattle was never under a court order to desegregate; Louisville's court order was dissolved. Los Angeles developed its integration plan as part of a court order to desegregate. That order has never been formally lifted.

"I don't think this case has any news for L.A. Unified," said Caltech professor Morgan Kausser, an integration historian who submitted arguments defending the Seattle and Louisville programs. He noted that the Supreme Court cited the lack of an active court order as meaningful in its ruling. "This could be considered a loophole, and it's a loophole the Los Angeles Unified School District could drive a bus through."

A different analysis came from an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, who focused on the underlying reasoning.

"This is a landmark opinion ending the use of race by public schools across the nation," said Sharon L. Browne, the organization's principal attorney. "Los Angeles Unified is in the same shoes as all other school districts."

The foundation represents the American Civil Rights Foundation in its suit against L.A. Unified's integration programs. That litigation contends that these efforts violate Proposition 209, the 1996 voter initiative that outlawed racial preferences in all public programs in California, including education.

Browne questions whether the court order gives L.A. Unified legal cover. The order is no longer valid, she asserted, because it's no longer under active court supervision.

Some district allies decry the potential loss of race-based admissions in Los Angeles; others say the programs can persist even if admissions are accomplished by lottery or by considering family income rather than ethnicity.

About 53,000 of the district's 708,000 students are enrolled in 162 magnet programs. About 30,000 students are on a waiting list. The integration program also includes "permits with transportation," which bus volunteer minority students to Westside or San Fernando Valley schools. About 3,000 students participate in this program, down from a high of about 12,000 students.

The state funding, more than $500 million annually, also pays for class-size reduction at "racially isolated" schools, a preschool program, counseling and other initiatives. The two biggest line items are class-size reduction and busing.

State officials said the district's funding is secure from litigation. Several years ago, the state's desegregation funding was converted to grants that are not expressly associated with integration.

"They would not lose any money" even if forced to alter the magnet admissions process, said Paul Warren, who examines education funding for the state legislative analyst's office.

Nearly all other California school districts with magnet programs do not use race in admissions, even if improving ethnic diversity is an underlying goal. Integration efforts in one other school district, Berkeley Unified, also face an ongoing challenge by the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Defenders say magnets are crucial for providing quality offerings that give middle-class and white families a reason to attend and support a system that primarily serves the poor. L.A. Unified is 72.8% Latino, 11.2% African American and 8.9% white.

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