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Once again, Boston’s battles over equity center on schools

Boston Latin Academy
Boston Latin AcademyBarry Chin

After the change, here comes the backlash.

Last October, the Boston School Committee voted to temporarily rework the admissions process for the city’s three exam high schools, substituting grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes for the traditional entrance exam for one year.

Under the plan, 20 percent of the seats would be allocated on the basis of grades. The remaining 80 percent would be based on a combination of grades and ZIP codes, with the neighborhoods with the highest percentage of school-age children getting the greatest number of seats.

The idea behind this change is no secret: The change grew out of a years-long push to increase the number of Black and Latino students at the three elite schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

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Now, a parents group, the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, has filed suit, claiming that the change would discriminate against white and Asian students, by reducing their presence at those schools. Meanwhile, civil rights groups have declared their intention to intervene to oppose the suit.

This is the latest chapter in a fight that has defined Boston for decades: the battle for educational equity.

The group that’s suing — officially, on behalf of 14 Asian and white students and their families — argues that ZIP code is being used here as a transparent proxy for race and ethnicity, which is pretty much true.

But it’s also true that the opportunity offered by city’s exam schools — the jewels of a system with too few quality high schools — need to be opened up to more Boston residents.

This is an old fight. A white parent successfully sued to dismantle racial preferences in admissions in the 1990s, and the exam schools grew less diverse as a result. Since then, an underground economy of advanced work classes (but only in some elementary schools) and test prep programs (for those who can afford them) has resulted in a serious advantage for families who understand what it takes to get into the elite schools.

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Still, this is Boston, and the admissions standards have long been viewed as inviolate. In a school system that constantly struggles to maintain forward momentum, the three exam schools are the one thing that indisputably work. So, political pressure to leave them alone, to avoid tinkering, has been intense.

“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,” attorney Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers for Civil Rights told the Globe this weekend.

In fact, the plan now under attack grew out of months — years, really — of careful deliberation. It took that long to build a consensus that the system as it exists couldn’t continue.

This battle is being played out in school systems elsewhere, amid demands to create more diversity in elite public high schools. In New York and other major cities, exam school admissions have become a flashpoint in recent years.

I felt in October, and do now, that the Boston School Committee — as well as Mayor Marty Walsh — did the right and brave thing in choosing to upend the status quo.

I don’t believe for one second that these changes will have any adverse effect on any of the exam schools. They will become schools that better reflect the high-performing and ambitious students that should attend them.

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No one should charge into federal court to oppose that.

The great lie of opponents of equity is that it always comes at someone’s expense. And that lie is certainly being echoed here. It’s the system we have now that’s fundamentally unfair. No surprise that it’s being fiercely guarded by those who have learned to work it.

Still, it’s unfortunate that so many of our battles over race and class end up being fought over the schools. As we remain mired in fights over who is getting something that should be ours, the BPS continues to struggle.

Maybe — just maybe — we’re fighting the wrong battles.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.