A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Montgomery County public school officials wrongly relied solely on race to deny a white couple's request to transfer their 7-year-old to another school, overturning a long-standing county policy to prevent schools from becoming racially isolated.

The ruling comes after the same 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar race-based school admissions policy in Arlington County last month and is one of a number of closely watched and politically loaded cases across the country. At issue is whether school districts can allow or deny students admission into schools, classes or special programs because of their race or ethnicity.

"As I read it, it sounds like they have invalidated the policy," said Patricia Brannan, the school district's attorney, who argued before the appeals court in June. "I don't know what this means in terms of impact on other students. We're just going to have to figure that out."

Jeffrey Eisenberg, father of 7-year-old Jacob and a lawyer who handled his own appeal, said he was vindicated, relieved and yet troubled by the ruling.

"Race is a difficult and unsettled issue in this country. I regret being on the opposite side of the dispute of those who are trying to solve the problem," he said. "But Montgomery County's case had no merit. It's clear they now have to try to promote diversity in a race-neutral fashion."

Last year, when Jacob was about to enter first grade, his parents sought to enroll him in Rosemary Hills Elementary School's math and science magnet program because he was showing a special interest in the subjects. The request was denied because of its "impact on diversity," according to a letter the Eisenbergs received.

Ironically, the county transfer policy that the court overturned yesterday was instituted in 1981 after black parents filed a federal civil rights complaint, claiming that the county was allowing too many white families to transfer out of Rosemary Hills, in Silver Spring. Montgomery County schools voluntarily integrated, avoiding court orders like the ones imposed in Prince George's and Boston to achieve racial balance in schools.

Montgomery's transfer policy on the whole is designed to look at a school's racial composition and measure the diversity against the county average. Jacob was slated to go to Glen Haven, his neighborhood school in Silver Spring, where white students make up 24 percent of the enrollment, down from 39 percent in 1994 and far below the county's 54 percent average.

Thus, Jacob, because he was part of a declining white population, was barred from leaving Glen Haven to attend Rosemary Hills, an effort that county officials call "racial balancing." The system also considers personal hardship, family unity and other factors but argued that none applied to Jacob.

In court, the school system argued that the transfer policy is valid because all students are affected; for instance, some African American or Hispanic children may be denied a transfer from a largely white or Asian school.

But the judges in their published ruling held that "a denial of transfer to African Americans or other minorities on account of their race is no less unconstitutional than the denial to Jacob," an example that "makes clear the evil of the system in place."

Jeffrey Eisenberg filed a preliminary injunction last year, seeking to allow Jacob to attend Rosemary Hills while the case was considered. The request was denied in U.S. District Court, and Jacob began first grade at Glen Haven.

Yesterday's ruling grants Eisenberg's request and requires the school district to reconsider the transfer request without taking race into account.

"This has never been against Glen Haven," Eisenberg said. "Jacob has an aptitude, and we want him to meet his full potential."

Brannan said that of thousands of transfer requests made in the past several years, about 100 have been rejected because of race. And the issue is a tough one in an increasingly diverse county.

"This ruling shows the conundrum school districts are in. On the one hand, you don't want to take deliberate action that will lead to segregated schools. On the other, you have parents like Mr. Eisenberg who say that no one can make a decision with respect to my child's education with race as a factor," she said. "It makes it very difficult to find good middle ground. . . . We thought this policy presented that."

In the Arlington case, the appeals court ruled last month that a weighted lottery favoring blacks and Hispanics seeking admission to a popular alternative school was unconstitutional. White applicants to Arlington Traditional School had sued the Arlington School Board, contending that the system discriminated against them.

Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.