Public schools offer legacy admissions

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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.

Bill Koski, a Stanford University law professor who specializes in education policy, said the preferences could widen the gap between affluent and poor districts. “The adequacy of education funding in California is problematic when even our wealthiest school districts feel they must resort to this type of thing,” Koski said.

Others, including Beverly Hills trustee Myra Demeter, criticized the policies for perpetuating privilege. “It favors the children of a group of people -- district alumni old enough to have children of school age -- perceived by many to be white and wealthy,” she said.

Supporters point out that Beverly Hills Unified offers hundreds of permits to students who live outside its bounds. Some are intended to foster diversity at the high school; others are for children of city and district employees and the largest group is for students with “opportunity permits.” Anyone can apply for the latter, which are used to boost state funding, fill out classes and allow a richer array of courses and activities.


The board voted this year to give no new opportunity permits, to continue the other permit programs and to allow 11 more legacy slots next year.

Goldberg noted that the district is committed to diversity and said he doesn’t understand the criticism.

“What’s wrong with being elitist? We’re Beverly Hills,” he said.

Families participating in the program, including the Gellers of Beverlywood, are grateful. Parents Jordan and Brandi Geller met at Beverly Hills High, she said.

Many mornings, Dr. Jordan Geller drops 5-year-old Caroline off at El Rodeo School, which he, his siblings and his mother attended. The family hopes eventually to obtain a permit for Amanda, 2.

“We each had such wonderful memories of the great education we received through the system, and we want to continue that legacy,” Brandi Geller said. “It means so much to us to know that we’re carrying on the same tradition for our girls.”