LOS ANGELES - The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court today on behalf of public high school students who qualified for a statewide special admissions to the University of California program called "Enrollment in the Local Context" (ELC), but whose schools failed to sign up for the program. The lawsuit charges that the students' rights under the United States and California Constitutions were violated by the program's failure. The program, which takes effect this year for the first time, guarantees admission to the University of California to the students who rank in the top 4% of their class but relies on schools to complete the necessary paperwork and does not provide students any recourse if their schools fail to do so. In order to ensure that qualified students participate in the program, schools were required to submit to the University the transcripts of the top 10% of their junior year class; the University used this larger pool to determine the top 4%. One hundred and thirty-four out of 852 public high schools - almost 16% - failed to send in the paperwork, so students from those schools will not have a guaranteed space at the University of California. The University estimates that, under the program, 3600 additional students would be admitted who may not otherwise have been offered a seat.

"This program provided one narrow bridge to a brighter future for thousands of top-achieving students in California," said Rocio Cordoba, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, "but for students attending the 134 schools that failed to complete the paperwork, and especially for students attending schools such as Locke and Manual Arts in Los Angeles, which are typically dramatically under-represented at UC campuses, that bridge has been washed away by the failure of the University of California's policy to ensure that all qualified students were given the opportunity to participate."

According to an editorial posted on Governor Davis' website, the ELC program's real effects are most likely to be seen on campuses "that are not traditionally known as 'feeders' to the University of California." Locke High School, in Los Angeles Unified School District, with a student body of 2300, sent no students to UC last year. Under the ELC program, numerous students would have been eligible for guaranteed admission.

"The suit seeks no more," said Mark Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the ACLU of Southern California, "than to hold the UC Regents to their word that if high school students academically achieve, they will be admitted within the University of California system. Denying admission to many of our best and brightest students who play by the rules on already unlevel playing fields, only to have the rules changed once they qualified for admission to the UC system, sends an unmistakable message that California's higher education admissions policies are rigged against poor students and students of color. The Regents might as well have posted signs outside their campuses saying, 'Students of color and low income students need not apply.'"

"The students involved in this case and others who were denied the chance to benefit from the ELC program," said Cordoba, "are remarkable students with tremendous promise, hope, and ambition. They want to become journalists, lawyers, engineers, and pediatricians. They did more than just follow the rules -- they exceeded expectations. Many are the first people in their families to go to college. This program �_ which offers more than just admission, but academic guidance and college advice as well �_ is particularly important for students whose families are less familiar with the culture of higher education and the complexities of the college admissions process and whose schools often have overworked and overwhelmed college counselors, unable to provide the guidance they need."

"Most of the students we met with had no idea, for instance, that this program even existed," said Cordoba. "Many thought they had no chance of getting into a UC school."

"The University clearly saw that its outreach and enrollment mechanism was failing at a rate of almost 1 in 6 schools," said Cordoba. "Why didn't someone stop to ask what would happen to the students in those schools? Why didn't anyone at the University flag this problem and create a solution that would give students a fair chance? These failures are troubling, especially considering that the ELC program was founded in the aftermath of Proposition 209 for the purpose of creating a new avenue for under-represented students to reach the University. "

The program was designed as a measure to help UC admit a diverse student body in the face of Proposition 209's ban on stronger, more affirmative steps to recruit and admit a diverse population of students - but the students primarily affected by their schools' failure are students of color and students from economically struggling communities.

"As we look at the data for the schools affected, we see a very clear pattern," said Cordoba. "The very students this program purports to help - students from schools that don't send many students to UC and students from communities which are under-represented at UC - constitute a large block of those excluded by this program's failures. Any program that truly aims to provide more access to under-represented students must, at a minimum, think through these problems in advance and offer effective remedies to the affected students. This program fails to meet that basic test."

In at least one instance earlier this year, UC made special arrangements to accommodate students from a school that had failed to meet the paperwork deadlines. This summer, Pittsburg High School in Contra Costa County mailed its paperwork in after the July 31 deadline. The University offered admission guarantees not just to the top 4%, but to the larger pool of 10% it would have evaluated and whittled to 4%.

"We're pleased that the University is capable of being flexible about this," said Cordoba, "but we're puzzled about why it has limited that remedy to one school. We believe that the only fair option at this point is for the University to guarantee admission to all students in the top 4% of their class who would have qualified for the ELC program. It's a matter of basic fairness."