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Federal judge hears arguments in Boston exam school admission case

Ignoring race entirely would be ‘foolhardy,’ said attorney Kay Hodge, who argued for Boston school officials

In October, protesters called for keeping the admission exam in place for exam schools.
In October, protesters called for keeping the admission exam in place for exam schools.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file

An attorney for a group of white and Asian American families challenging the constitutionality of a temporary admission policy for Boston’s exam schools told a judge on Tuesday that “racial considerations” were “the predominant reason” for a system he said would unfairly crowd out prospective white and Asian American students.

But a lawyer representing city school officials vehemently disagreed, saying it is “just false” that the policy was constructed for the purpose of “ensuring racial balancing.”

The dueling sides faced off in a proceeding held over Zoom in the first major federal court challenge in more than two decades to the way the school system doles out seats to its three exam schools.

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At issue is a temporary admission policy for the coveted schools that aims to address the district’s inability to hold in-person entrance exams last fall during the pandemic due to safety concerns. Instead, the policy allocates seats in part based on student ZIP codes and grades.

The provisional admission policy has generated outrage among the plaintiffs, known as the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp., which filed a lawsuit in February arguing the changes will disadvantage Asian American and white students. Applicants of those demographics have historically excelled on the entrance exam.

Allocating seats based on ZIP code and grades will give applicants from areas with greatest concentration of poverty the highest priority, according to the admission policy. Seats for each ZIP code will also be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there, according to the admission policy. An initial analysis by a working group that recommended the admission changes last fall found the policy could boost representation of Black and Latino students in the exam schools while reducing the odds of Asian and white students getting in.

Depending on the outcome of the case, school officials will either send out admissions letters to new students this month or will have to scramble to come up with a replacement policy.

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Judge William Young said on Tuesday he will try to rule on the constitutionality of the criteria school officials intend to use this year by April 15, but he left open the possibility of further delays.

“I’m not required to give an opinion by that date, though I am sensitive to the needs of the School Committee to actually function and make assignments, but my duty is to the Constitution,” Young said.

The stakes in the case are high. While the admission changes are for only one year, many parents and civil rights leaders hope the move will lead to a permanent overhaul of the admission criteria for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

It is an issue that has challenged the school system for decades and been the subject of multiple federal court cases.

“It’s a potentially historic case,” said Robert Trestan, the New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, in an interview. “For far too long, there has been inequitable access to the exam schools, especially for students of color and students who live in the lowest-income neighborhoods.”

At the most sought-after exam school, Boston Latin School, 45 percent of the 2,500 students are white and 29 percent are Asian, three times higher than in the school district. Black and Latino students collectively account for only 21 percent of the seats, even though they account for 72 percent of all students districtwide.

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Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of all students at Latin School are economically disadvantaged, compared to 63 percent districtwide.

The ADL and several other organizations, including the Boston Bar Association, the Boston Celtics, and the Boston Red Sox, filed a brief in support of the exam school changes.

Much of Tuesday’s proceedings revolved around nuanced legal arguments about whether the School Committee engineered the admission policy to boost the prospects of Black and Latino applicants at the expense of Asian American and white applicants. The plaintiffs contend that school officials are using ZIP codes as a proxy for race, and that this violates their equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

“Animus in terms of hostility toward a race or disrespect to a race is present here,” said the lawyer for the plaintiffs, William Hurd. “But we don’t have to show that kind of hostility and disrespect for Asians or whites in order to prevail.”

In an effort to prove that hostility, Hurd noted that hours before the School Committee approved the plan, then-Chairman Michael Loconto was caught on a hot mic, after a group of speakers with Asian-sounding names were announced, mocking their names. Loconto later resigned.

Young seemed skeptical at times as Hurd argued that race was a factor in the admission calculations, saying the plan appeared to be “race neutral.”

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Attorney Kay Hodge, who argued on behalf of Boston school officials, vigorously disputed Hurd’s characterization that the interim policy was akin to a “ZIP code [racial] quota plan.”

But she added that race was “absolutely” a factor considered by policymakers, but not the only one as they considered how to amend the policy in a way that recognized the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on different racial groups in Boston.

“Frankly, your honor, with a history which is obvious on its face of the Boston Public Schools, anyone who ignored race entirely would be foolhardy,” she said.

Race was at the center of two federal lawsuits in the 1990s in which white families sued the district.

The first lawsuit led to Boston school officials replacing a practice, developed under court-ordered desegregation, that set aside at least 35 percent of exam school seats for Black and Latino students.

However, the resulting admission policy, which used race more loosely as one of several factors in a good portion of the exam school admission decisions, quickly attracted another lawsuit by parents of a white student. In 1998, a US Appeals Court found the new policy was unconstitutional, resulting in Boston school officials creating a policy that left race out of the equation. School officials tinkered with that policy last fall.

The current lawsuit has thrown a wrench into the admission process for this year, prompting school officials to delay sending out acceptance letters until mid-April or later. That timeline, roughly a month later than usual, is increasing the likelihood that many families could end up paying nonrefundable deposits for private schools while they wait for exam school admission notifications.

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Students are applying for seventh and ninth grades.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston chapter, an intervener in the case., defended the policy in an interview.

“The policy as designed will increase the geographic and socioeconomic diversity” of the exam schools, said Sullivan, who cochairs the school system task force examining more exam school admission changes. “That is the intention and that is what we hope it will do.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.