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Faced With Cuts In Funds, Seattle Postpones Rules

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Faced with the loss of $3.2 million in federal magnet-schools aid and as much as $10 million in state construction funds, the Seattle school board voted last week to postpone for a year changes in its student-assignment guidelines that it had approved a week earlier.

The new guidelines on the racial makeup of schools are intended to reduce mandatory busing and to allow more students to attend the schools of their choice.

But critics contend that the change would resegregate the city's schools, and federal officials think the guidelines might make Seattle ineligible for the magnet-schools program.

A coalition led by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People plans to challenge the change in court if and when it is implemented.

Under a "controlled choice" plan adopted in 1988, the district earmarks slots for white and minority students at each school and grants student choices that meet racial-balance guidelines.

The guidelines reinstated last week allow no more than 50 percent of a school's enrollment to come from a single minority group, and limit each school's total population to 70 percent minority or 65 percent white.

The new guidelines--which are now to be implemented in the 1991-92 school year--would allow 75 percent of a school's population to come from a single racial group, and also allow a school to enroll only minority students if they came from at least two minority groups, such as blacks and Asians. The school board voted 4 to 3 on Sept. 5 to approve the guidelines.

"I want to challenge the idea that to be desegregated a building must have white people in it," said Ken Eastlack, a school-board member and the primary author of the new guidelines. "Our minority population is very diverse."

"I don't think you can automatically assume more choice will lead to more segregation," he added.

Minority students make up about 55 percent of the district's total enrollment.

Federal magnet-schools grants are intended to "assist school districts in eliminating, reducing, or preventing minority-group isolation," a statement released by the U.S. Education Department said.

The agency considers a school racially isolated if its enrollment is more than 50 percent minority or more than 50 percent white, according to federal and district officials, and individual schools or entire districts can become ineligible if racial isolation increases.

For example, if a district has a school that is 60 percent minority, an increase in minority enrollment could trigger ineligibility--even if minority students account for 70 percent or 80 percent of the district's total enrollment.

As a condition for continued funding, the department has also imposed on certain districts in the current grant cycle additional requirements related to a magnet program's goals, such as improved academic achievement or enrollment changes. Seattle's grant carries such "special grant conditions," according to the department.

"If [a] school district's approved desegregation plan is revised during the funding cycle, any revisions to the plan must be reviewed by the Department of Education," the department's statement said.

The Seattle school board scheduled an emergency vote last week after the district received a letter from the Education Department notifying it that the department would withhold the district's 1990 magnet-schools grant pending a review of the new guidelines, according to Patricia McDonald, a spokesman for the district.

The letter, from John T. MacDonald, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, did not say that the guidelines appeared to violate federal rules, Ms. McDonald said. But district officials said department officials had told them informally that the new plan would probably not pass muster.

"The assumption was that we't get it because this would increase racial isolation," Ken Watson, the district's director of federal relations, said.

State officials also notified the district that it could lose as much as $10 million in state funds earmarked for construction projects this year, Ms. McDonald said. Those funds are tied to desegregation efforts.

District officials said that the unanticipated loss of $13.2 million would have posed a serious hardship, and that they would have had a dearth of options with the school year already under way.

In particular, officials noted, state law forbids the district from laying off teachers unless they have been notified by May 15 of the previous school year.

"There is no money to replace that money," Mr. Watson said. "The board would have to make some difficult financial decisions."

Mr. Eastlack said that he proposed an amendment that would exempt magnet schools from the new guidelines' effect, but that officials in the Education Department's office for civil rights said this would amount to having two student-assignment plans, a violation of federal rules.

Instead, the board voted 5 to 2 to postpone implementation of the new guidelines.

Mr. Eastlack said he found it ironic to run into resistance from an Education Department whose officials are so vocal in their support of school choice.

He said his proposal is not an effort to dismantle the district's controlled-choice plan, which was conceived as an alternative to mandatory busing under a desegregation plan the district voluntarily adopted in 1977.

"This is designed to give people more choice and more equitable choice," he said. "We took some of the control out and put more choice in."

Mr. Eastlack won his office in the same 1989 election in which Seattle voters narrowly approved a referendum calling on the school board to dismantle the plan in favor of open enrollment. The measure was not binding, but tied increases in the city's contribution to school funds to board action. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1989.)

The board voted 4 to 3 in December not to comply. Mr. Eastlack, who was part of that majority, offered the new guidelines as an alternative way to increase choice, and they were approved 4 to 3 on Sept. 4.

The board rejected another proposal that would have allowed a school's racial makeup to deviate no more than 20 percent from the district's overall enrollment, Mr. Watson said, adding that Superintendent William Kendrick recommended that the board not alter its guidelines.

Federal officials were already questioning Seattle's desegregation efforts before the vote. The district had been notified that about $400,000 of its 1990 magnet grant, which was to go to Hale and Cleveland high schools, would be held up because federal officials believed that segregation had increased at the two schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

The department will review up-to-date enrollment figures that the district was to send late last week to determine those schools' eligibility.

Federal officials said several weeks ago that three other districts faced similar reviews, and that the department had already decided to reduce magnet-schools aid to a fifth district.

A department spokesman last week confirmed that those still under review include Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Community District 15 in New York City.

In addition, a source familiar with the situation said the reduced grant was that of the New York City Board of Education, which oversees high schools. The source said one school under its jurisdiction was found ineligible because "special conditions" related to it were not fulfilled.

In interviews over the past few weeks, district officials and education consultants familiar with the magnet-schools program have cited the delays and an increased number of site visits as evidence that the Education Department is monitoring the program much more closely than it did under the Reagan Administration.

In addition, the current set of grants, first awarded for fiscal year 1989, were the first to carry "special conditions," according to the department.

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