Buffalo's Board of Education acted responsibly when it decided to keep in place, as much as it can, the policies that have governed admissions to Olmsted, City Honors and other magnet schools.
Some of those policies may, in the end, have to be junked at the order of some court. But it hasn't happened yet. So, for now, it makes sense to waste as little as possible of what has been gained in 25 years of experience.
The magnet schools suddenly became a complicated topic after federal court rulings changed Buffalo's educational landscape.
In October 1996, U.S. District Judge John Curtin lifted the court order that had desegregated Buffalo's schools in the 1970s. That court order had required racial quotas, and magnet-school admissions had been designed to take them into account. But Curtin's action did not mean that he was giving the schools permission to go back to racial segregation. Fair access of all races to school programs was still to be maintained.
Meanwhile, other federal courts were striking down racial quotas as unconstitutional.
The vexing new problem for the magnet schools is how to keep racial balance while not using quotas.
But as City Corporation Counsel Michael Riseman made clear, in a pivotal reversal of position just before last week's board vote, factoring race into admissions should not be equated with applying strict quotas. "The law does allow race and gender to be considered," Riseman said. "What the law does not allow is a strict quota system."
David Jay, attorney for the plaintiffs in the old desegregation case, had stressed the same point. Buffalo's history of past discrimination provides a legal foundation, he said, for continued consideration of race. Abolish that in the magnet-placement process, Jay warned, and the School Board would be sued again for discrimination.
There will be no easy answer to reconciling the competing legal demands on the magnet-school system. The School Board is now a target in a reverse-discrimination suit filed by white parents whose daughter was denied admission to the City Honors gifted program. There have been rumblings from other groups of whites who may sue on similar grounds.
What the board has now decided is to leave well enough alone, as far as possible, until forced to do otherwise. A good program and diversity will both be maintained.
"We're going to get sued either way we go," mused Central Board Member Jan Peters. "The beauty of this is we get to do the right thing."
In deciding that race could still be a factor considered in magnet admissions, members of the School Board gave themselves two invaluable tools of governance: time and flexibility.
Members need time and flexibility to experiment, maneuver and learn from experience how best to admit students in this transition from a strict court order requiring racial quotas to a system forbidding them.
City schools should roughly reflect the diversity and racial balance of this community. That's the real world. It is where the youngsters grow up and interact. They are educated by that diversity in the classroom, and that is just as true for the academically gifted.
In choosing gifted students, a variety of qualifications -- IQ, academic achievement, motivation, teacher recommendations, creativity and the like -- should be weighed. But to promote diversity and give all groups a chance at the best education, so should race.