WASHINGTON -- Saying he had been "legally correct" but "politically naive," a federal official backed away yesterday from his ruling against scholarships awarded on the basis of race. But the policy statement detailing his shift could open the door to legal challenges that would again endanger such scholarships, meaning that the touchy issue is not likely to disappear soon for an already embarrassed Bush administration.
"There's still life left in the debate," said one White House official, who predicted the issue would resurface at confirmation hearings for Education Secretary-designate Lamar Alexander, whom President Bush named Monday to succeed Lauro F. Cavazos.
President Bush, who said he had "long been committed" to minority scholarships, said he was happy with yesterday's announcement but realistic about what might happen next. "I would like to think that the matter can be resolved with finality this way, but I don't think that's what we've done," he said. "I think there'll probably be court challenges."
The whole issue might never have surfaced if it hadn't been for a Dec. 4 letter from Michael L. Williams, chief of the Education Department's Civil Rights Office, to organizers of the Fiesta Bowl football game in Tempe, Ariz.
The organizers were planning to set up a scholarship fund for minority students as a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. By doing so, Arizona officials hoped to quell the national uproar that followed the defeat of a statewide referendum to establish a King holiday.
Mr. Williams' letter advised the organizers that it was illegal for schools receiving federal money to award such scholarships, and he said his office would be cracking down on violators.
That message set off an outcry of protest among educators and civil rights leaders. The White House, caught unawares by the policy, also reacted with alarm, both to the ruling and to the public response.
So the president asked the Education Department to reconsider its position, which led to yesterday's announcement of a retooled policy.
Mr. Williams said at a press conference yesterday that the new policy was designed to "prevent disruption to the efforts of colleges and universities to attract minorities to their campuses and to reassure students that no scholarships that have already been awarded . . . will be affected in any way."
The intent, White House officials said, was a return to the status quo. But by attempting to put into writing a policy that had earlier been a matter of general understanding, department officials ran up against the same constraints of law that had convinced Mr. Williams to offer his earlier opinion.
The result is a policy some educators feel raises more questions than it answers. Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, bemoaned the confusion that is likely to result and said he liked things the way they had been before this "deplorable situation."
For private schools receiving federal aid, the new policy probably will leave most minority scholarship programs untouched, education officials said. But the Education Department couldn't decide what to say about most state-supported schools, and the policy states that they "are covered by the Supreme Court's decisions construing the Constitution and thus cannot be addressed administratively."
Realizing the confusion that statement would cause, the new policy said that state-supported schools would therefore get a 4-year grace period for changing their minority scholarship programs to bring them into compliance with the law. Administration officials say they hope this will enable schools to tailor their programs in such a way that they would survive court challenges.
But Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, striking a theme likely to be echoed by officials in other states, urged President Bush to go ahead and give the OK to such scholarships for state colleges, too.
"I hope you will consider the new ruling as inadequate as the first," Mr. Schaefer wrote Mr. Bush yesterday.