Published Online: May 21, 1997

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Judge Blocks Bid To Ax Quotas in S.F. Schools

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A group of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco, thwarted by a federal judge in their 3-year-old effort to abolish racial quotas in the city's public schools, have vowed to appeal.

In a decision this month, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick, who approved the district's desegregation plan 14 years ago, affirmed that it is constitutional but left open the possibility that it may be time to end it.

District officials and some civil rights advocates hailed the ruling, saying that while the plan has largely integrated the schools, more time is needed to help boost academic achievement among African-American and Hispanic children.

The plan generates more than $30 million annually in extra state aid for busing and smaller classes.

"Without it, we'd be back in the 1950s, when the schools for black children in San Francisco were at the bottom rung of the ladder," said Alex Pitcher, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which filed the original lawsuit that resulted in the 1983 desegregation plan.

The plan, laid out in a consent decree, prevents a single racial or ethnic group from composing more than 45 percent of a school's enrollment, or 40 percent at an alternative school.

Appeal Planned

The plaintiffs have argued that the plan's racial quotas discriminate against Chinese-American students by limiting the percentage who can enroll at certain schools. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Daniel Girard, said last week that he will appeal the May 6 ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The case illustrates the changing mosaic of the San Francisco schools: The consent decree was originally championed by blacks, who represented the largest minority group in the district in 1983. The current challenge stems from a suit filed in 1994 by Chinese-Americans, who make up the largest minority group in the schools today.

Judge Orrick noted that change, writing that the two crusades "involve the same right--the right of children to attend public school free of invidious discrimination." The two groups, he said, "may reach different conclusions about how to protect the rights of the children, but this is the issue at the heart of both suits."

Admissions Challenged

While the lawsuit by the Chinese-Americans sought to overturn racial quotas districtwide, much of the controversy has centered on Lowell High School, known for its rigorous academic program and competitive admissions policy.

At the time the suit was filed, the 40 percent cap on Chinese-American students and the large number of those students districtwide meant that they were held to higher admissions standards at Lowell. ("Cursed by Success," April 5, 1995, "Chinese-American Parents in S.F. Win Round in Court," Oct. 11, 1995, "New Admissions Policy Sought for S.F. School," Jan. 24, 1996.)

For example, the school rejected one of the plaintiffs, Patrick Wong, because his grades and test scores were lower than the minimum required for Chinese-American applicants. However, his qualifications equaled the minimum admissions requirement for other racial and ethnic groups, according to the lawsuit.

As a result of the suit, Lowell changed its policy last year so that 80 percent of the students are admitted based on grades and test scores, while 20 percent are admitted on those rankings plus community service, leadership ability, and other qualifications. The school, however, maintained the 40 percent cap on Chinese-Americans as well as the district's other racial guidelines.

"The discrimination here is obvious, blatant, and very heinous," said Amy Chang, the vice president of the Asian American Legal Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that supports the plaintiffs. "Any time a single child is denied an opportunity to pursue educational opportunities due to their ethnicity is wrong."

A 'Unique Case'

Chinese-Americans make up 27 percent of the 62,166 students in the district, African-Americans 17 percent, and Latinos 21 percent. The rest of the students fall into six other categories.

"This is a unique case because of the number of racial and ethnic groups in the district," said Aubrey V. McCutcheon Jr., the district's special legal counsel. "It's not just a black and white issue anymore."

And though he affirmed the constitutionality of the desegregation plan, Judge Orrick raised the possibility of the plaintiffs proving that it has remedied past racial bias.

In that case, the district could be declared unitary, a legal term meaning that it has removed all traces of past discrimination, and therefore could be removed from court oversight.

A growing number of school districts, including Broward County, Fla., Buffalo, N.Y., and Wilmington, Del., have been declared unitary in recent years. ("Without Court Orders, Schools Ponder How To Pursue Diversity," April 30, 1997.)

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