Emulating a controversial practice at many colleges, two high-achieving public school districts in California are giving preference to the children of alumni.
The Beverly Hills Unified School District and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District have adopted legacy admissions policies for children of former students who live outside their enrollment boundaries. The policies appear to be the first in the nation at public schools, education experts said.
The programs vary slightly, but leaders of both districts say they hope to raise money by forging closer ties with alumni who may be priced out of their hometowns as well as with grandparents who still live there. In each district, nonresident legacy students will make up a tiny percentage of the student population, officials said.
"I'm taking a page out of the university or college playbook," said Steve Fenton, a Beverly Hills Unified trustee. "Alumni are the lifeline for any academic institution."
Critics argue that such policies are antithetical to American public education.
"It's antidemocratic," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. Public schools, he said, were created as places where "merit was to be rewarded and birth and economic advantage was to have no place."
Many universities and colleges have long offered preferences to the children, grandchildren and siblings of alumni, accepting them at greater rates than applicants overall, sometimes with lower grades and SAT scores.
Universities' arguments for legacy admissions -- to nurture connections with alumni and their checkbooks -- have been upheld as constitutional. But the policies can cause campus controversy, leading some schools, including the University of California in 1998, to vote to abolish them.
Private elementary and high schools, including Harvard-Westlake and Marlborough in the Los Angeles area and the Fairmont schools in Orange County, say they offer children of alumni an admissions advantage if they meet other requirements.
Beverly Hills adopted its legacy policy on a 3-2 vote last spring, allowing the children of anyone who attended city schools at least four years and whose grandparents have lived in the city for at least a decade to apply for permits. Eleven students, among 5,100 enrolled in district schools, attend school under the program.
Fenton said he proposed the idea to reconnect the district with grandparents who live within its borders and no longer have a direct stake in the city's schools yet are asked to vote on school measures, such as a $334-million facilities bond passed in November.
Fenton also said the district needed to forge closer ties with its alumni and pointed to an example of the benefits such connections can bring: The Beverly Hills Athletic Alumni Assn. in recent years has raised more than $1 million for uniforms, scoreboards and other purchases, he said.
To round out classes and maximize state funding, the 12,000-student Santa Monica-Malibu district has long offered permits to the children of district, city and community college employees, siblings of current students and others who moved away. After those, it also has given permits to some nonresident students without connections to the district.
But the board voted unanimously in April to give alumni children priority over this last category of students, starting next school year.
"If we're going to be giving out additional permits to students who live outside the community, the board felt we wanted to give them to people who had a tangible connection to our community," said board member Ben Allen. He also said the policy was a response to soaring housing prices that have hurt diversity in the district and priced out younger families.
In Beverly Hills, trustee Brian Goldberg, who opposed the policy shift last spring because he believed legacies should be given even greater priority, said the preferences make sense. "Any time you have people who have a deep connection to a school, those people are more likely to [provide] support, financially and through other means," he said.
Critics are skeptical.
"It would be more efficient from a fundraising standpoint to auction off education slots on EBay than to create a legacy preference," scoffed Michael Dannenberg, director of education policy at the nonpartisan New America Foundation.
Districts have broad discretion to set enrollment policies, as long as they do not violate state or federal law. Constitutional scholar and UC Irvine law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said the legacy policies are not unconstitutional, although he said he found them troubling.
"They give benefits to those who often least need them and deny that benefit to those who often most need them," he said.