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Guest Contributor

Teaching Berkeley Schools about Respect for Law and Equal Rights

A school choice sham...
[Cynthia D. Cook] 9/8/03

If you like oxymorons—dry ice, jumbo shrimp, airplane food—the bureaucrats at the Berkeley Unified School District have come up with one to savor: “controlled choice.” That’s their Orwellian name for their policy of assigning students to schools based not on parents’ preferences but on children’s skin color.

The “controlled choice” system requires parents to tell the district the race of each of their elementary-school children. Parents may designate three schools as their top choices, but the decision on where their kids go is ultimately a formulaic process that is much more about control than choice. An informational form explains: “The computer system will assign students based on space available and other criteria, which may include socio-economics and ethnicity . . . .

”The mention of “ethnicity” sounds like an afterthought, but race is actually at the core of the program. The district categorizes each elementary student as “black,” “white,” or “other” and then attempts to balance each school’s racial makeup to within 5% of the overall district population. If parents refuse to identify the race of a child, the school district will do it for them. When assignments are made, a family’s “choice” goes out the window if the student’s color doesn’t fit the preferred racial mix for a particular school.

The policy is obnoxious on so many levels. It wastes money, for one thing. All the clerical and computer time required to pigeonhole students by race comes with a price tag, although the bureaucrats haven’t revealed the exact cost. One would think they would see higher and better uses for funds, considering that the district is as much as $9 million dollars in debt, and firing teachers, increasing class sizes, eliminating the music program, cutting library services, and gutting transportation services, athletics and security services have all been discussed.

There is also the inconvenient fact that the program is blatantly illegal. Proposition 209, enacted by voters in 1996, amended the California Constitution to outlaw race-based discrimination or preferences in public education. Telling a family that their kids can’t go to a certain school because they’re the wrong color and would upset the racial balance is the very definition of racial discrimination. In fact, a program very much along these lines—race-based restrictions on student transfers in a Huntington Beach high school district—has already been struck down by a California appellate court as a violation of Proposition 209.

Yet Berkeley blithely goes on treating students as color-coded pawns.

“Until I’m told by a higher authority not to, I’m going to continue to use race as a criteria,” one school-board member huffed. “Right-wing Nazis are finally after us,” the same official said last month, after Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit against “controlled choice.” Welcome to Berkeley, where defending color-blind equal rights is equated with an evil ideology that stood for just the opposite: making race the ultimate arbiter of people’s fate.

The plaintiff in PLF’s lawsuit is Lorenzo Avila, father of two Berkeley elementary students. He is concerned that the district’s fanatical pursuit of racial balancing is having a detrimental effect on his children. He believes that school officials teach kids harmful lessons when they essentially tell them that their skin color is what defines them. He wants the focus to shift to improving the education of all children in the school district regardless of their race or the school they attend.

Such a shift is also mandated by the California Constitution—a lesson that’s sure to be administered to Berkeley before long by a California court.Cynthia D. Cook is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.

copyright Pacific Legal Foundation



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