Are magnet schools LAUSD’s last hope to keep Anglo kids in the system?

It’s not yet clear whether last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on school desegregation will affect the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), but the questions the decision raises certainly resonate across the Jewish community. In the year 2007, is desegregation still a worthy goal or is it time to move on?

As a parent of three children who have attended magnet schools in Los Angeles, this is not a theoretical concern. It’s about the future of my kids.

Unlike the remarkable racial and ethnic diversity that defines Los Angeles as a city, our public school system has become increasingly homogeneous, defined by the large and growing Latino population. Just 9 percent of the total K-12 enrollment is white.

Enter the magnet school program. Many white parents value magnet schools as the only viable public school option where their child can receive a quality education and not be the only white kid in the room.

LAUSD created magnet schools in the 1970s as a strategy to promote desegregation on a voluntary basis. After the heated and divisive battles over “forced” busing (where Jews figured prominently on both sides of the issue), magnets were designed to use voluntary choice, rather than coercion, to promote integrated school environments.

This premise still holds today. These specialized school programs are often so outstanding that they inspire parents of all racial backgrounds to send their kids outside of their home neighborhoods.

Because magnet schools were created and funded as a strategy to promote desegregation, rules were established to maintain a ratio reflecting the district’s larger population of white students on the one hand and kids who are among the “predominantly Hispanic, black, Asian and other non-white” populations on the other.

A lottery, based on a complicated point system, determines which applicants are accepted to each magnet school. Based on the long waiting lists and intense angst of parents who struggle to master the point system, magnet schools have proven very popular and successful.

In many parts of L.A., parents will lament that “our local school is OK, but I don’t know if I’m comfortable with Johnny being the only white kid in his class.” One can see how they would feel drawn to a nearby (or not so nearby) integrated magnet school, where their child is much more likely to find they are one of many white students.

In addition to providing a more integrated enrollment, the magnet schools have achieved strong academic results. Magnets are often called the “crown jewels” of LAUSD. Yet it is the very success and appeal of such magnet programs nationally that have raised the recent constitutional question about the rights of those kids who are turned away, largely because of their race.

Every year, many white students apply to specific magnet schools but are not selected, in part because the total white enrollment would fall outside the targeted ratios of the LAUSD desegregation program. This could be summarized as the “one white kid too many” scenario.

From the perspective of that child and his or her parents, they are being discriminated against because of the color of their skin. This was part of the context of the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases.

The annual lottery to admit kids to L.A. magnet schools produces winners and losers, and race is definitely a factor. I believe the larger public benefits warrant this “downside,” but that is easy for me to say, as someone who has successfully placed my kids in magnet schools. But beyond the personal, there are important benefits for all from this program.

Magnet schools may be the only hope for retaining the remaining white enrollment in LAUSD. If they were to be eliminated, how many white families would make a renewed commitment to their local neighborhood school, where few other white students now attend?

To be sure, there have been some success stories where a small band of motivated parents have led efforts to “bring back the community” to their local school. But how many who do not have the benefit of such localized efforts would consider the end of magnets to be the “last straw” and follow their neighbors off to private schools? How many might move away from L.A. altogether?

By now it is fairly apparent to most observers that the future of Los Angeles will be defined by the needs and priorities of the Latino community. As Jews, we should be concerned that our large public school district serves primarily Latino kids, most of whom will never meet a Jewish child in their school careers.

Our own kids and the city as a whole are better served by an inclusive school system that is representative of the whole population. A city whose children are educated in segregated ethnic and religious enclaves will not be prepared to navigate the challenges and opportunities generated by the city’s overall diversity.

While these issues are compelling in many parts of the Jewish community, they may simply be moot in the larger sense. Most Jews and other whites have already left public schools and no longer see this as their particular problem, as evidenced by the stunningly low voter turnout for the heated recent school board election in the Valley. Still, there is some irony — and maybe even some hope — in the fact that the winning candidate, Tamar Galatzan, is Jewish.

At the same time, civic leaders in the Latino, African American and Asian communities have also moved on from the question of desegregation. Drawing in more white students is far less important to them than securing the resources and effective instructional programs to serve kids of color.

Due to many legal complexities, it remains unclear whether the LAUSD magnet schools will be affected by the recent court ruling. But even if the status quo remains, it would be a mistake to let the issue pass without a conversation about the relationship and engagement of the Jewish community with our public schools. Looking to the future, should we press to create viable public schools as an option for our own children or is it simply too late?

Mark Slavkin, vice president for education at the Music Center, served as a Los Angeles Board of Education member from 1989 to 1997.

Don’t Let Affirmative Action Fade

Louisville, Ky., is a city divided between white and black, rich and poor; between the West End of town, where blacks live in camelback shotgun shacks and the East
End, with its leafy neighborhoods of white gentility.

But after decades of court-ordered school integration, Louisville’s Jefferson County Board of Education has one of the most successful voluntary desegregation programs in the country. Schoolchildren take the bus from one end of the city to the other to maintain a broad racial balance, attending schools in both the inner city (black) and the outer suburbs (white).

Two years ago, Crystal D. Meredith, a white mother, sued the school board after her son was refused admittance to his neighborhood school because of his race. The board argued in court that his attendance would have tipped the school’s racial balance, and won. But after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower courts decision in favor of the board, Meredith’s lawyer, Teddy B. Gordon, a self-made civil rights attorney and a Jewish liberal, believed the new conservative Supreme Court would hear the case, and he was right: After prolonged review, the case is on the Supreme Court docket for December.

The Louisville case may seem far away and far removed, but the outcome will impact hundreds of public school districts in the country if it turns back the clock on voluntary desegregation programs.

For instance, as part of a court-ordered voluntary desegregation plan in 1981, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) created its popular magnet programs, using race as one of the determining factors for school assignments. In a city rife with racial tensions, the LAUSD’s aim was for a more diverse student body.

If the Louisville school board fails to win its argument before the Supreme Court, these popular LAUSD programs will be in jeopardy. Magnet assignments, based on points that use race to achieve ethnic balance, would be invalidated by this ruling. Permits With Transportation (PWT), another LAUSD program, which buses minority students, whose resident schools are highly segregated, to more integrated schools outside their neighborhoods, would probably cease to exist.

Why is the Louisville case so important? Why should we, as Jews, care about its outcome, especially if our children may not even attend public schools? Is affirmative action even relevant in 2006, in our schools, in our world? What are the benefits of diversity in education anyway?

To answer these questions, one first needs to look at the repercussions of the decision by the Supreme Court in Dowell v. Oklahoma City in 1991 that ordered a return to neighborhood schools and an end to court-ordered desegregation, replaced by voluntary desegregation plans — such as the one Louisville developed.

For many in fiercely segregated and poor areas, the return to neighborhood schools meant a return to the segregated classrooms of the past. According to Jonathan Kozol in “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” (Crown, 2005), inner-city schools are now experiencing levels of segregation that haven’t been seen since 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unlawful.

A look at the 2005-2006 statistics from a few of LAUSD’s urban schools tell the story: Jefferson Continuing High School: 91 percent Latino, 9 percent black, no white students; Fremont High School, 91 percent Latino, 9 percent black, one white student; Locke High School; 65 percent Latino, 35 percent black, .1 percent white; King/Drew Magnet: 67 percent black, 31 percent Latino, .5 percent white; Crenshaw High School: 65 percent black, 35 percent Latino, .1 percent white; Garfield High School: 99 percent Latino, .2 percent black, .2 percent white.

If one looks, it’s not too hard to see the connection between the resegregation of our urban classrooms to the numbers of minorities admitted to our public colleges. Prop 209, the California voter-initiative passed in 1996, that banned consideration of race and gender in admissions to public colleges and hiring, has only added to the problem.

In June, the Los Angeles Times reported a “startling statistic” — that out of 4,800 incoming freshman at UCLA, only 96 were African American, the lowest level of black student enrollment in three decades. Students, professors and administrators mutually blame the school’s admission process and the passage of Prop 209 for the falling numbers of black students — a number that has been slipping for a decade.

If prospective black students were to visit the Westwood campus today expecting to see a reflection of its big-city surroundings, they would be sorely disappointed. The same goes for other UC campuses: UC San Diego counts 52 incoming African Americans this fall; UC Berkeley, 140; UC Merced, 33.

How does a return to segregated LAUSD classrooms and the end of affirmative action at the UC schools reflect upon Jewish concerns? Do we read these statistics and shrug our shoulders? Do we accept a de facto, “separate but equal,” for blacks and Latinos in our public schools and colleges?

Jews have always invested themselves in the fight for fairness and equality in the realm of public school education. After World War II, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith waged campaigns against discrimination in schools and the workplace.

In the late 1940s, Jewish activist Esther Swirk Brown initiated the case that eventually landed in the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

That 1954 landmark ruling declared that “separate but equal” has no place in the field of public school education, and is “inherently unequal.”

In 2003, the Supreme Court returned to Brown v. Board of Education when it upheld affirmative action in higher education at the University of Michigan’s law school. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reflected upon the enduring impact of Brown in America, and expressed the hope that improvements in lower levels of education would make such policies unnecessary in 25 years. Speaking for the majority opinion, she wrote:

“This court has recognized that education … is the very foundation of good citizenship. (Brown v. Board of Education). Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized…. The skills needed in today’s increasingly global market place can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.”

For all these reasons — good citizenship, an appreciation of different cultural values, preparation for the future — our children benefit most when they participate in a diverse society. As fully functioning citizens they must learn to sit down and talk to others to appreciate cultural differences.

Without exposure to different viewpoints, races and values, our children will be stuck with their heads in the sand, with impenetrable dunes forming on their backs. A diverse student body is necessary in assuring that all children have equal opportunities, which should be as important to Jews as to any other minority.

In December, the Supreme Court will decide if the same principles for higher education apply to public schools.

Does “race” still matter?

Although Louisville’s desegregation plan may be flawed, as attorney Gordon will try to argue, an end of affirmative action and a return to segregated schools, as we are witnessing in the LAUSD and on the UC campuses, doesn’t bode well for anyone. Affirmative action is not only for the benefit of minorities, but for the benefit of all our children as well.

Charlotte Hildebrand is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles.