Education Dept. Issues Race-Neutral Guidelines

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As Supreme Court arguments near, the Bush administration is aggressively encouraging schools to avoid race-based admissions programs like those at the University of Michigan which it contends are unconstitutional.

The Education Department on Friday released a 40-page guide of "race-neutral" recruiting and enrollment ideas that it says have shown promise in states such as California, Texas and Florida. Leaders say they want to help schools see how they can maintain diversity without using the racial preferences that the president calls divisive and legally untenable.

The move comes just before the Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday on what experts say is the most significant affirmative action case in a quarter-century -- a challenge to undergraduate and law school admissions policies at the University of Michigan. Federal officials acknowledged that hearing's importance, but said its timing happened to coincide with the wrap-up of their yearlong effort.

The Bush administration filed a brief opposing the Michigan policies, which consider race as one factor in determining which students are offered acceptance.

Efforts by colleges to help train and recruit high school students in poor communities merit more attention, said Brian Jones, the department's general counsel. The guide also draws attention to policies like one used in Bush's home state of Texas that guarantees college admissions to students who finish at the top of their high school class.

"These are not endorsements," Jones said, but an effort to show "what's working."

The promise of admission to a top percentage of students is perhaps the best-known race-neutral alternative, and its use is expected to grow if the court rules against Michigan. But under the plan, a high-achieving student in one school may lose a college slot to a student who earns lesser grades but finishes at the top of a low-performing school.

"Any approach, including the current ones, will have shortcomings," said Gerald Reynolds, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights. He and others contend the key difference is that those other choices are not in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

Eliminating race as a factor could inhibit schools from enrolling minorities for fear of legal scrutiny, though, even if race was not the reason those students were admitted, said Victor Bolden, a lawyer in New Haven, Conn. He wrote a brief supporting Michigan's policies on behalf of Philadelphia, Cleveland and the National Conference of Black Mayors.

"The fact that institutions are doing something to bring people together is something that's fairly within the bounds of what they ought to be doing," Bolden said.

Increasingly, schools are considering a student's socio-economic status as a factor in admissions. That approach avoids a direct reference to race, but it targets diversity because many racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately poor, according to the guide.

Such an approach also is legally defensible, the Education Department officials said.