Racial Preferences Challenged in Houston

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In a broad attack on racial-balance policies in the Houston public schools, two white students sued the district in federal court last week claiming they were denied admission to a magnet program for the gifted because of their race. Subscribe to Education Week Newspaper

Under a policy in place since 1984, the 209,000-student district sets aside 65 percent of its magnet school seats for African-American and Latino students, and 35 percent for other groups, including whites.

The two students, who use pseudonyms in the suit, say they were turned away from a program at Lanier Middle School because of the racial caps. Additional students, including some minority-group members, are expected to join the suit as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is being financed by a Houston-based legal fund known as the Campaign for a Color-Blind America. Edward Blum, the group's chairman, said last week that the suit was the first of perhaps dozens of similar cases the group plans to bring around the country.

"Racial classifications, racial preferences, and racial discrimination are all part of the same story," he said. "They are immoral, odious, and a total failure worldwide."

The district will argue that its policies are part of a court-ordered desegregation plan, said M. Kaye DeWalt, the district's general counsel. In 1989, the district was released from court supervision in the desegregation case brought against it 30 years ago.

Both Ms. DeWalt and Mr. Blum said they expect the new case to be closely watched, because it seeks to apply to the public schools a controversial appellate court ruling last year that struck down racial preferences in admissions at a Texas law school. ("Court Rejects Race-Based Admissions at Law School," March 27, 1996.)

Following that decision in Hopwood v. Texas, which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review, the Houston district began planning a review of its student-assignment policies. Last week, the district appointed a task force of community leaders to take a fresh look at the issue and make recommendations to the school board.


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