Equity & Diversity

U.S. Appeals Court Rejects Race-Based Admissions in Va. District

By Robert C. Johnston — October 06, 1999 2 min read

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Arlington County, Va., district cannot use racial preferences as part of a lottery to determine who attends a popular alternative school.

The 350-student Arlington Traditional School must find another way to reach its goal of preserving racial diversity, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Sept. 24.

The unanimous decision upheld a U.S. District Court ruling from May of last year that found the weighted-lottery system the district had been using, which favored black and Hispanic students, was unconstitutional. The appeals court ruled that white students who did not benefit from the weighted system were “innocent third parties” of a policy that was “not narrowly tailored to further diversity.”

But though it affirmed that conclusion, the appellate panel criticized the earlier ruling for ordering the 18,500-student Arlington County schools to use a random lottery for admissions to the school. The new ruling allows the school board in the Washington suburb to craft a new plan.

“The district court should have taken the less intrusive step of continuing to monitor and review alternative programs proposed by the school board,” Judge Sam J. Ervin III wrote for the appellate panel before his death of a heart attack Sept. 18.

The Richmond-based appeals court declined, however, to rule on the validity of the school board’s goal of racial diversity because that issue has not yet been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Moving ‘Cautiously’

Last month’s decision sends mixed signals to districts caught between the threat of legal challenges to racial preferences and the goal of diversity.

“You may come to the conclusion you can’t do this,” said Edwin C. Darden, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “It’s more a case of moving ahead cautiously than giving up.”

Arlington school officials were consulting with their lawyers last week about their next move.

“I consider it a mixed victory,” the board’s chairwoman, Libby Garvey, said of the ruling. “The policy we devised was held to be not right ... but the court said it was appropriate for us to move forward.”

Previously, a citizens’ committee had suggested alternative plans, such as drawing names of potential students at random.

The next admissions cycle for the K-5 Arlington Traditional School, which was established in 1978 as a high-standards school with a focus on phonics, begins next May.

In 1998-99, the school’s enrollment was 62 percent white, 18 percent Asian-American, 10 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic.

“People want to know what the admissions policy is,” said Lisa Farbstein, the district’s spokeswoman. “It’s really disruptive when you need to change.”

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