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Civil rights group to challenge lawsuit over admissions policy at Boston exam schools

The exterior of the Boston Latin School.
The exterior of the Boston Latin School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Boston could again be pitched into a legal fight over racial equity in education after a newly formed parents group filed a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the public school system from considering students’ ZIP codes as part of the admissions process for attending its exam schools next fall.

The suit filed Friday by the nonprofit Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, formed in November, alleges that the Boston Public Schools’ admissions policy for acceptance to the three schools violates students’ constitutional rights and will “artificially favor Latino and African American students to the detriment of Asian and White students.”

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“As parents, we want our children to have a fair opportunity to earn admission to the exam schools and enjoy the unsurpassed educational opportunities those schools offer,” Bentao Cui, the coalition’s president, said in a statement. “We do not take lightly the decision to file this lawsuit, but we felt we had no other alternative to protect our children’s rights to be free from racial and ethnic discrimination at the hands of the government.”

A hearing to consider an emergency request to stop the city’s school system from using students’ ZIP codes in the selection process is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

On Saturday, Lawyers for Civil Rights said it will seek to challenge the lawsuit, which accuses the city of “subordinating the longstanding merit-based citywide competition” for admission to the three schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science.

“We will be moving to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of Black and Latinx and all other students who would be harmed if this misguided lawsuit goes anywhere,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The complaint “is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of BPS policy and of constitutional law,” said Sellstrom, who added that the US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of admissions policies like the one adopted by the city.

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The Boston School Committee, its members, and BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius were named as defendants in the complaint.

The school system and the office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh declined to comment Saturday, citing the pending litigation.

In October, the Boston School Committee voted unanimously to drop the admissions tests requirement at the exam schools for one year because of the coronavirus pandemic and instead determine eligibility based on grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes.

Before that vote, a working group appointed by Cassellius recommended suspending the testing requirement for the 2021-2022 school year.

The admissions plan for this fall awards 20 percent of seats in the three schools based exclusively on grades. The remaining 80 percent of seats are awarded based on grades and ZIP codes, with the largest number going to the neighborhood with the greatest proportion of the city’s school-age children.

The lawsuit alleges the ZIP code assignment system is discriminatory, “anti-Asian,” and will reduce the number of Asian and white students admitted to the exam schools while increasing enrollment among Latino and Black students.

It cites comments from current and former School Committee members as evidence of what it calls the ZIP code policy’s “discriminatory intent.” The School Committee’s former leader, Michael Loconto, resigned after he was caught on a hot mic mocking Asian names of people who had signed up to deliver public comment before the vote on exam school admissions, the complaint said.

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The lawsuit said, however, that it is not challenging “the basic idea of using GPA without the use of an examination” for admission this fall because of the pandemic.

The complaint was brought on behalf of 14 sixth-grade students of Chinese, Indian, and white ancestry who have applied to the exam schools and their parents, who are members of the organization.

The families live in Chinatown, Brighton, Beacon Hill, and West Roxbury — all neighborhoods they say would be adversely affected by the ZIP code assignment system, the lawsuit said.

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence is collecting donations to support its efforts, and had raised nearly $6,000 from 44 donors on GoFundMe as of Saturday afternoon.

One of its lawyers is William Hurd, who is based in Richmond, Va., and represents a group of middle schoolers and their families who are suing school officials in Fairfax County to block changes in the admissions policy at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, court records show.

The Virginia lawsuit was filed last year after officials announced a plan to revise its admissions rules in an effort to attract more Black and Hispanic students to the school in Alexandria, which has been ranked as the best in the nation.

Earlier this month, a judge in the Virginia case allowed the lawsuit to proceed, but declined to issue an order that would have immediately halted the changes, court records show.

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Lisa Green, a member of the steering committee for the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, who lives in the North End, said in an e-mail that the local lawsuit seeks to protect the status quo.

“They’re not arguing for equal treatment, they’re arguing that they’re entitled to what they got last year— whether it’s equitable or not,” she said. “Many of these families live in zip codes like mine, that’s traditionally had a 100% acceptance rate to exam schools. It’s a loss for families in some neighborhoods who were counting on exam schools for their children, but is not having that guaranteed access anymore a violation of our constitutional rights? No.”

Asked by the Globe Saturday to comment on the lawsuit, the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association shared a statement it issued last year in support of the revised exam school admissions policy.

The association called it not perfect but “the best option for this year given the health concerns many families have.”

Public school districts nationwide have been revisiting their admissions policies to address concerns about lack of diversity and inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Board of Education in San Francisco voted to eliminate an admissions system for the prestigious Lowell High School that used test scores and grades in favor of a lottery.

In December, New York City announced a plan to drop academic criteria for middle-school admissions for one year in favor of lotteries and to phase out high schools’ admissions practice of prioritizing students in their district.

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Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.