A Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Los Angeles Unified School District can continue to base admissions to its popular magnet school system on the race of the students, sharply rejecting a conservative legal group’s argument that the system violates California law.
Judge Paul Gutman said that “quite clearly and beyond dispute” the school district had been ordered in 1981 to use a race-based formula for selecting students in the magnet school system, and that the court order remained in effect.
The magnet system established specialty schools that have become, in many cases, the district’s brightest centers of academic excellence. It was intended to give families the motivation to voluntarily desegregate a district that was deeply polarized along racial lines. It hasn’t fully met that promise -- many schools in the district, including many magnets, remain racially isolated. But numerous magnet schools have become models of integration.
“We’re obviously very pleased with the court’s decision,” said L.A. Unified General Counsel Kevin Reed. “We have an important desegregation program that has done great things for kids, and it didn’t go away with the passage of [anti-affirmative action] Prop. 209.”
Roughly 60,000 of the district’s 700,000 students attend magnet schools. The ruling also applied to the district’s “permits with transportation” program, which offers voluntary busing to selected students to achieve desegregation.
“I think lots of parents are cheering tonight,” said Pam Marton, principal of the Community Magnet School in Bel-Air, one of the oldest magnets. Community, originally located in the Pico-Fairfax area, has long been among the most racially diverse schools in the city, while achieving some of the district’s highest standardized test scores.
“I think it’s so important for children to interact with and learn with all different types of people,” Marton added. “It’s what they’re going to encounter in the real world. . . . Our city, unfortunately, is very, very racially isolated, if you look at home schools. There aren’t many naturally integrated schools in our city.”
Gutman’s ruling, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, was a rebuke to the Pacific Legal Foundation, an anti-affirmative action group affiliated with Proposition 209 author Ward Connerly. His 1996 voter initiative amended California’s Constitution to bar preferential treatment in public institutions based on race, essentially ending affirmative action in the state.
The proposition made an exception for programs under existing court orders, however, and the legal battle over the magnet schools was largely fought over whether the district remained under such an order.
The case was based entirely on California law and was not affected by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in July that magnet school systems in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, could not use race in selecting students for magnet schools.
Paul Beard, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said he and his colleagues were “obviously very disappointed in the court’s ruling.”
Beard said the foundation did not dispute the judge’s conclusion that the 1981 court desegregation order, which gave rise to the magnet and permit programs, was still in effect. But his co-counsel, Sharon Browne, has long argued that the order was not in effect, and the foundation’s original filing asserted that the court had “terminated its jurisdiction over the matter.”
Beard said the 1981 order did not spell out how the district must go about selecting the students for the programs and was, therefore, irrelevant. “There is no mandate that the district use race as a criterion in selecting students,” he said. “There are race-neutral ways to do so.”
In his ruling, however, Gutman wrote: “It appears quite clearly and beyond dispute that . . . LAUSD was ordered to employ race and ethnicity to ensure that the magnet schools would in fact be desegregated.”
Catherine Lhamon, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, which intervened on the side of the school district, said she wasn’t surprised by the substance of the ruling, but added: “What I found surprising was the strength of the judge’s language.”
The 1981 order by Superior Court Judge Robert Lopez established a formula for admissions to magnet schools. It requires that 30% of the seats in most magnet schools (40% in some) be set aside for non-Latino white students, and the remainder for students of all other races and ethnicities. Beyond that, admissions are based on a weighted lottery system, with students assigned points based on a variety of criteria, including the racial composition of their home school and whether they have a sibling at the school to which they are applying.
Although some have criticized the formula as out of step with a district in which fewer than 9% of the students are white, the system is unlikely to change because any tinkering would require a new court order, thereby putting the district under the rules of Proposition 209.
“There is justifiable hesitation to adjust these formulas that really do depend on a constitutional grandfather clause,” said Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional scholar at the Pepperdine University School of Law. “One would be foolish, having achieved this legal victory, to make adjustments at this point.”
Kmiec, who served as a legal counsel in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said he thought the ruling was “a highly defensible outcome.”
He added: “Part of the legislative bargain with the people of California when Prop. 209 was presented was that previously existing programs that had had a reasonable amount of success wouldn’t be affected.”
Applications for magnet school fall admissions are due Jan. 11, and Reed, the L.A. Unified lawyer, said the court ruling was a relief for school officials and parents who had worried about the prospect of having to scrap the admission policies. “It’s great to be out from under the cloud of doubt,” he said.