Anchorage schools drop racial preference clause

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Anchorage School Board has dropped a policy that allows minority students faster access to the district's popular optional and alternative programs.

The board voted 5-2 Monday to drop the racial preference clause complied with a legal order from the U.S. Department of Education's Office For Civil Rights, which said the minority preference was illegal. Defying that would have committed the district to a lengthy legal battle and the potential loss of millions of dollars in federal funds.

Board members Rita Holthouse and Harriet Drummond voted against dropping the policy.

''Without this, our programs are going to become more and more Caucasian,'' Holthouse said.

Board member John Steiner supported the change.

''Fundamentally I believe that a policy that chooses between two children based on the color of their skin is not right.''

Thousands of students attend the district's roughly 20 optional programs, which include charter schools and language immersion and back-to-basics classrooms.

Enrollment is decided by lottery. Students whose names are drawn go on waiting lists. When spaces open, the first students on the list get in -- sometimes. A policy change in 1995 was prompted by the largely white enrollment in the special programs. The policy change said that if a program's enrollment isn't within 10 percent of the district's overall minority population, nonwhite students on waiting lists can enroll before white students.

About 42 percent of the district's 50,000 students are nonwhite. They include blacks, Hispanics, Alaska Natives, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Alternative schools with less than 32 percent minorities must use the racial preference clause.

''We were at 31 percent on Oct. 1 and I have no other minority students on the wait list,'' Dorothy Oetter, principal at Steller Secondary School, told the board.

Last year, a father of a white student on a waiting list complained to federal authorities that the clause was unfair. The education office agreed and told the district it was violating Title VI, which relates to public schools discriminating based on race, national origin and ethnicity.

Superintendent Carol Comeau signed an order in December saying the district would change its policy.

Some theorize minority families don't often sign up for optional programs because the district does not provide transportation. For some families, there's a language barrier.

''We all have to do a better job at recruiting -- not just us the district, but us the community,'' board member Tim Steele said. ''We have to all do more.''

The board also approved a motion to find a way to legally help students from low-income neighborhoods get into the alternative programs.

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