Judge Rejects Race-Based Admissions to Va. Magnets

By Caroline Hendrie — May 21, 1997 2 min read

A federal judge ruled last week that the Arlington County, Va., school system was violating the U.S. Constitution by using racial preferences to admit students to its three magnet schools.

U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. rejected the school district’s argument that its admissions system was justified by its duty to promote racial and ethnic diversity.

The case was brought last month by the parents of three white preschoolers who were denied admission to next fall’s kindergarten class at the Arlington Traditional School, a countywide magnet school serving about 300 students in grades K-5.

“The court affirmed in no uncertain terms that the process the county was using wasn’t legal and it wasn’t fair,” said Steven M. Levine, a lawyer who represented his own child and two others as plaintiffs in the case.

A growing number of school systems around the country are facing similar legal challenges. As more districts are released from court orders requiring race-conscious policies to remedy past discrimination, experts expect a rise in litigation challenging the notion that a simple desire for diversity justifies such measures. (“Racial Quotas in Desegregation Case Rejected,” April 30, 1997.)

Lottery Changes Ordered

In Arlington, the district fills a certain number of seats in its magnet schools strictly by lottery. But to ensure conformity with the racial and ethnic breakdown of the district schools as a whole, it passes over some white students with high rankings in favor of nonwhite students who place lower in the lotteries. The proportion of whites who apply to the schools is larger than their percentage of district enrollment overall.

In his decision, Judge Bryan directed the 17,900-student district to stop using race as a factor in the admissions process and to rely solely on the lotteries.

Early this month, the school board announced plans to form a citizens’ panel to study the admissions policy. A spokeswoman for the board said last week that it had not yet decided whether to appeal the judge’s decision.

William Taylor, a civil rights lawyer based in Washington, called the ruling a setback. And he argued that it conflicted with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education.

“He’s hopelessly confused,” Mr. Taylor said of the judge. “At the elementary and secondary level, school districts have the right to promote diversity.”