This fall, Valley View Elementary Principal Inez Sadler will finally get to fill the 17 empty chairs in her school's four classrooms for gifted and talented students.
At least 20 students who were on a waiting list for the Prince George's County magnet school had been kept out because they are black, and the seats were reserved for white students under a court-ordered desegregation plan.
The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday to change that rule, easing the racial quotas on the county's popular magnet-school program despite the court order.
The move will open about 500 vacant slots in the county's 53 magnet programs to black students. With 4,100 students on waiting lists, those slots won't be hard to fill, administrators said.
"It's very good news," said Mrs. Sadler, who faced the possible loss of a teacher because of shrinking enrollment. "I'm excited at the prospect of having those positions filled by students."
But opponents said the switch threatens to land the county back in court and cost up to $13 million in state aid for magnet schools, while avoiding larger questions of desegregation efforts in a majority-black county.
"This says that there is no way to desegregate anymore," said school board member Alvin Thornton, who is black and voted against the change. "I'm not willing to play around with that money in order to put a few black schoolchildren into a so-called better school."
The magnet program was created in 1985 to funnel extra resources to schools in predominantly black areas and to act as a voluntary integration program to lure white students to the specialized programs in majority-black schools.
The court required a racial mix in the program; previous county regulations required that at least 9 percent of the students in a high school magnet program and at least 13 percent of those in a grade school program be white. Currently, 72 percent of the district's 120,000 students are black.
But even at those levels, the county did not have enough white applicants to fill the magnet-school program. There are 25,000 students enrolled in county magnet programs.
Board members voting for the change said they are not abandoning racial quotas for the magnet program, but rather allowing black students to take slots that would otherwise go empty because of the lack of white applicants.
"How can you deny access to the more expensive programs to black students? …