Administration To Reveal Race-Scholarship Position

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WASHINGTON--The Bush Administration last week told members of the Congress that it expects to make public in a matter of weeks its position on the legality of race-exclusive scholarships, and a House committee decided to wait for that ruling rather than make a preemptive strike to establish the legality.

In letter to members of the House Education and Labor Committee, Education Department officials said they would rule in early November on whether scholarships designated solely for minority students violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and sex.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander ordered a review of the . issue after the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, Michael L. Williams, touched off a political furor last December by declaring that scholarships based solely on race were illegal. (See Education Week, Feb. 13, 1991.)

Opinion is divided on what the department's previous policy had been; those on either side can point to o.c.a. opinions both upholding and disallowing race-exclusive scholarship programs.

But the education community vigorously disputes Mr. Williams's legal interpretation. Educators have also said that denying minorities special scholarship programs would send the wrong signal to students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Differences Among Democrats

Some members of the Congress want to establish the legality of minority scholarships through legislation. But a House committee chairman last week persuaded his colleagues to wait for Mr. Alexander's ruling.

As the House Education and Labor Committee completed work on legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, Representative Craig Washington, Democrat of Texas, sought unsuccessfully to attach an amendment stating that race-exclusive scholarships are legal if they are used by institutions of higher learning to foster diversity.

Mr. Washington said he believes such scholarships violate current civil-rights laws, and that the Congress should take the offensive on the matter. He noted that the amendment could be dropped from the bill if Mr. Alexander reaches a different legal conclusion.

"I don't think race-based scholarships in and of themselves are legal,'' said Mr. Washington, a lawyer. "I think they're legal within the confines of Supreme Court rulings, and that is to promote diversity."

The amendment failed by a vote of 21 to 10, largely because of the opposition of Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee. Several Democrats, especially the panel's minority members, appeared to be voting against the amendment reluctantly.

Mr. Ford, who has expressed support for race-based scholarships, said that by accepting Mr. Washington's amendment, the committee would be agreeing with his interpretation of the law and perhaps put the Higher Education Act in legislative jeopardy because the issue is so volatile. He also said that many minority scholarships were established for reasons other than to promote diversity.

"You and Mr. Williams are the only lawyers in this town that are bold enough to say that [these scholarships] violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964," the chairman told Mr. Washington.

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Page 21

Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as Administration To Reveal Race-Scholarship Position
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