Magnet schools in Los Angeles won a significant court victory Friday when a state appellate panel rejected a lawsuit charging that they violated California's Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action in the state.
In strong, clear language, the three-judge panel said an organization affiliated with Proposition 209 author Ward Connerly was wrong to claim that the Los Angeles Unified School District could no longer use the race of students as a factor in magnet school admissions. Race-based admissions were mandated in a 1981 court order that remains in effect despite Proposition 209, the appeals court said.
Although Connerly's organization could still appeal to the state Supreme Court, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who took part in the case on behalf of the district said she thought the challenge was effectively over.
"It's an unequivocal victory for students in this district and terrific news for students statewide," Catherine Lhamon said.
Because the ruling was based on largely technical grounds, Connerly said it was not a serious setback to his campaign against affirmative action. "This isn't something that challenges 209," he said. "But I think it's just the wrong way for us to be going with regard to the issue of race, at a time when we just elected a self-identified black man as president and we're trying to get beyond race."
In an interview, incoming L.A. Schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he might not have fought the lawsuit had he been in charge when it was filed in 2005. He said he supports the concept of magnet schools, which use strong academics or specialized curricula to attract students citywide, but thinks that using them as a tool for desegregation might be an outdated idea. In a district where more than 90% of students are nonwhite, it is no longer possible to integrate the school system, he said. The magnet system mandates that 30% or 40% of the seats in a school be set aside for white students. It does not distinguish among other races or ethnicities.
Asked if he thought the district could have responded to the lawsuit by halting its use of race in magnet admissions, he said, "I think they could." He added that he didn't want to be a Monday-morning quarterback.
Proposition 209, passed by voters in 1996, prohibited state and local governments in California from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to anyone based on race. However, it made exceptions for preexisting court-ordered desegregation programs. The case against Los Angeles Unified was based on the theory that a judge in 1981 had ended his court's jurisdiction in the desegregation case against the district, leaving it defenseless against Proposition 209.
The appeals court said that was not the case. "We begin our analysis," wrote 2nd District Appellate Court Judge Sandy R. Kriegler, "with the undisputed material fact that the Superior Court's 1981 final order has never been reversed, overruled, vacated, revoked, modified or withdrawn." Having established that, the court said, it was "difficult to accept" the argument "that the district was not under a court-ordered integration plan in 1996 when Prop. 209 was approved."
Sharon Browne, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation who argued the case on behalf of Connerly's organization, the American Civil Rights Foundation, said she was disappointed and would decide next week whether to appeal.
Browne said the ruling effectively told Los Angeles parents "that their children are going to be assigned to magnet programs based on their skin color, using a quota system. . . . And we believe that is a terrible lesson for the school district to be teaching our children."