Racial preferences may be eliminated at Chicago’s elite magnet schools—the best in the system, and virtually the only city schools that are integrated.
Schools chief Arne Duncan said Friday that if the district’s 24-year-old desegregation court order is lifted in 2006, the system may face legal challenges to race-based admissions.
So Duncan has named a blue-ribbon panel that will explore whether other factors, such as economic status and ZIP code, should be included in magnet admissions criteria in an effort to promote diversity.
Duncan said the 50 magnet and selective-enrollment schools have been successful at promoting racial integration, but he suggested it is time to revisit the policies governing the city’s most popular schools.
“We have to consider whether racial preferences are truly fair to everyone,” Duncan said. “And it may not be legal.”
Since 1980, the district has been operating under a voluntary agreement to integrate its schools to “the extent practicable” and provide extra services for students in racially isolated schools.
But U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras challenged the settlement last year, questioning why it was still active and whether it is even possible to integrate a school system that is now only 9 percent white.
If Kocoras does end the agreement as expected in 2006, it could make it more difficult for Chicago to defend the racial preferences in magnet admissions.
Other urban districts nationwide—including San Francisco, Boston and Seattle—have been moving to other kinds of admissions criteria in the face of court challenges by students and their families.
Chicago’s magnets and selective enrollments have proved a crucial tool in keeping middle-class families in the system. Nearly all the magnets have higher achievement-test scores than typical neighborhood schools.
Admission is determined by a weighted citywide lottery that attempts to create a student body that is 15 percent to 35 percent white, although last year white students made up more than 40 percent of magnet enrollment.
Because many of these schools also screen students based on grades and test scores, most of the district’s 431,000 elementary and high school students do not qualify.
If racial preferences disappear with no new measures in place to ensure diversity, advocates fear that black and Latino students will start to disappear from these select schools.
“It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. They are going to turn into white schools,” said Sarah Vanderwicken, an education lawyer with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Vanderwicken said the district should maintain racial preferences, while devising a race-neutral admissions policy in case it were to lose a court challenge.
Duncan said any new policy must reflect the district’s commitment to maintaining diversity in these top schools.
“It is so important to me that we use this as an opportunity to build upon existing diversity,” Duncan said.
The blue-ribbon panel, which includes lawyers, educators and community leaders, will study legal issues and admission policies in other districts. The group is expected to make recommendations to the board in late November.
Commission member Deborah Hill, a superintendent in Northfield and a former administrator in Evanston who started her career at a magnet school, said she knows well the challenges of keeping these schools diverse, even with race-based policies.
Evanston’s two magnets were open to all students, but they were perceived as “gifted” schools and ended up with far more applications from white families than minority families.
“It’s going to be a tough battle,” said Hill, who attended Chicago schools. “There are so many issues and we are dealing with so many communities.”
Alonzo Rivas, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said his goal on the commission will be to create admission policies that would allow more limited-English students to enroll in these coveted programs.
“There’s this misconception that because a child doesn’t speak English, they wouldn’t be able to perform in a gifted class,” he said.
Rivas added that any new system should include other ways of guaranteeing diversity, including boosting recruitment in underrepresented neighborhoods.
“In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need racial preferences,” Rivas said. “But we don’t live in that kind of world. Sometimes they are needed, especially in Chicago.”
Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner, who runs one of the city’s top selective enrollment schools, said it’s crucial to preserve the admission standards that offer spots only to the city’s brightest students.
Students aren’t even considered for enrollment unless their test scores, grades and attendance are high enough. At Young, about 45 percent of the students are white or Asian, and about 35 percent are low-income.
“We have to make sure we are focusing on gifted education for gifted children,” said Kenner, a commission member. “If we lose that focus, we lose the real focus of the magnet school concept.”
She also acknowledged it would be “a challenge” to maintain diversity if there were no racial preferences in admissions.
“Our kids learn from diversity, and diversity is key to keeping these schools as viable as they are now,” Kenner said.
The district hopes to adopt a new policy before the end of the year and test the admissions standards at a few schools next year before launching a systemwide policy in 2006.
That would require the district to settle on a new plan before January 2005, when the next magnet applications are due.