ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Anchorage School district has been notified by federal civil rights authorities that it can no longer allow minority students to jump ahead of white students on waiting lists to enroll in the district's popular optional programs and alternative schools.
The order has ignited arguments about fairness and education. Underlying the debate is the legal order -- and some school board members' reluctance to follow it.
Monday's school board meeting marked the first of two readings of a policy change to drop the minority preference. On a board usually known for unanimous votes, three members voted against the change.
''We went into this meeting thinking it was a done deal but the more we got into it, the more we realized it was a horrendous thing politically,'' said board member Harriet Drummond. ''I don't care if we have to fight this. It's just frightening. This is essentially getting rid of affirmative action.''
Because so many people want to get into the programs, the district holds a lottery. The winners get into the program, or onto a waiting list to enroll in turn as space opens up. Relatively few minorities apply, however.
By 1995 it had become apparent that most students in the optional and alternative programs were white. Some complained that minority families either didn't know about the alternative programs or found it difficult to participate.
To make the special-program enrollments reflect the ethnic and racial spectrum of the rest of the district, the board adopted a preference.
Now minority students can skip to the front of the waiting list if a school's minority contingent is not within 10 percent of the district's overall racial mix. About 42 percent of the district's 50,000 students are nonwhite. Alternative schools with less than 32 percent minorities must use the racial clause.
Today, there are about 20 optional programs, including Spanish and Japanese language immersion, charter schools, Polaris K-12, back-to-basics and open-optional classrooms. They are attended by thousands, with hundreds more on waiting lists.
Last March, a father of a white student complained to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, in Seattle. He said the district's racial preference practice was unfair. That office ruled the district was violating Title VI, which relates to public schools discriminating based on race, national origin and ethnicity, said Andie Stone, a school district attorney.
Drummond and others predict that erasing the preference will make it hard to get minority students into optional programs.
Stone said the district would likely lose a court battle if it tried to keep its program. Legal fees could top $100,000, she said.
Comeau signed an agreement in early December, saying the district would revise its policies, pending a final action by the board.
''I had no choice in the end to sign this,'' she said.
Several board members supported the change.
''The courts are saying now that we are not allowed to pick Billy or Jimmy by what color they are,'' said John Steiner, a board member and attorney, who supported the change. ''If we turn this down we are basically committed ourselves to thousands of dollars of legal fees and a losing battle.''
Without racial preference, board members and school officials said the district must increase efforts to recruit minority students for alternative programs and those efforts should include providing buses to get students to these schools.
Currently no buses are provided for alternative programs. That basic transportation hurdle is thought to block many potential students from applying to optional schools or programs.
''A lot of people can't afford to take off and get their child to that program,'' said the Rev. William Greene, who has previously chaired a black citizens task force for education. ''The district has to be more people-conscious.''
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