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Federal judge upholds Boston exam school admissions policy

Parent coalition that filed lawsuit argued that ZIP codes were being used as a proxy for race

In October, protesters at Boston Latin School called for keeping the admission exam in place.
In October, protesters at Boston Latin School called for keeping the admission exam in place.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A federal judge on Thursday upheld the Boston school system’s temporary changes to its admission policy for its exam schools, a victory that may allow acceptance letters to go out by the end of the month.

In his ruling, Judge William Young said the policy, which is based on grades and ZIP codes, “does not have the effect of subjecting students to discrimination because of their race.”

“Viewing everything through the prism of race is both myopic and endlessly divisive,” Young wrote. “Geographic and socioeconomic diversity are appropriate educational goals in their own right, regardless of race.”

The court’s ruling applies only to the admission cycle for the 2021-2022 school year, which is how long officials have said it would remain in place. And the judge made clear the temporary plan is not perfect, saying, “All parties here concede there may be better race neutral ways to handle Exam School admissions.”

In a big move last fall, the School Committee temporarily dropped the entrance exam for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science because they believed it wasn’t safe to hold the in-person exams during the pandemic.

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Under the change, students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.

Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp., which filed the lawsuit in February on behalf of 14 white and Asian applicants, argued that the school system was using ZIP codes as a proxy for race in an effort to boost the enrollment of Black and Latino students. Consequently, the coalition argued the plan was discriminatory.

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The decision should pave the way for the school system to finally send out acceptance letters, a process that is running about a month behind schedule due to the legal dispute, according to the school system.

In a letter to families Thursday night, school officials said they hoped to notify students about admission decisions by the end of the month, noting that they were in “the process of finalizing exam school invitations and working with our external independent partner to make sure our final calculations are accurate.”

In a statement, school officials said they are excited to welcome a new group of students to the exam schools this fall.

“In light of the significant educational disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, our goal has been to ensure a safe, fair, and equitable exam school admissions process that provides access for all students across the City of Boston,” the statement said.


However, William Hurd, an attorney for the coalition, said Thursday night that the coalition intends to file an appeal.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” Hurd said in a statement.

An initial analysis by a working group that developed the policy found the changes would likely lead to an increase in the number of Black and Latino students who gain admission, while decreasing acceptances for Asian and white students.

A school spokesman said officials won’t halt the admission process unless required by the court.

The judge’s ruling drew praise from several organizations that filed as interveners on behalf of the school system: the Boston branch of the NAACP, the Greater Boston Latino Network, Asian Pacific Islander Civic Action Network, Asian American Resource Workshop, Anti-Defamation League of New England, and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Lawyers for Civil Rights, Sidley Austin, LLP, and Greater Boston Legal Services served as pro bono counsel.

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“Judge Young has helped ensure that every student in Boston, despite the pandemic, will have the chance to attend some of the most selective schools in our city,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “We look forward to continuing our multi-racial coalition work with Boston Public School leaders, educators, students, and families to ensure that this policy is implemented with integrity and transparency.”

Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, said in an interview that the ruling was “a victory for the students of Boston — and equity.”

“This is a solid indication that the plan that the Boston School Committee put together is both constitutional and equitable,” Trestan said.

He added that the ruling was “the first step toward long-term change.”

The lawsuit was the first federal court case to challenge the school system’s process of admitting students to exam schools in more than two decades. Previously, white parents in two separate lawsuits in the 1990s sued the school system, leading to two major overhauls of the admission process.

The first case forced school officials to scrap a process that dated back to court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, which set aside at least 35 percent of exam school seats for Black and Latino students. In its place, school officials instituted a new admission process, which used race more loosely as one of several factors in a good portion of the exam school admission decisions.

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However, parents of another white student contested the changes in court and a federal court judge in 1998 found the changes to be unconstitutional. School officials revised the policy again, eliminating race entirely from the equation of admission decisions.

Young also criticized school officials, particularly former School Committee chair Michael Loconto.

Loconto was caught on a hot mic on the night the board approved the admission changes mocking the names of speakers with Asian-sounding names. The coalition cited the remarks as evidence of racial bias.

“These were racist comments directed at the city’s Asian American community,” Young wrote. “This Court takes them seriously but finds no persuasive evidence that any other voting member had such animus. This is conclusive.”

Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this story.



James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.