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Plaintiffs seek emergency injunction to halt Boston exam school admission decisions as they pursue appeal

Leaders of civil rights, community, and education advocacy organizations and attorneys who intervened in the recent lawsuit challenging Boston Public Schools’ updated admissions process held a press conference Friday morning.
Leaders of civil rights, community, and education advocacy organizations and attorneys who intervened in the recent lawsuit challenging Boston Public Schools’ updated admissions process held a press conference Friday morning.

A group of white and Asian American parents on Friday appealed a federal district court decision upholding a temporary admissions policy for Boston’s exam schools that allocates most seats by ZIP codes and sought an emergency injunction to halt school officials from admitting students under the plan.

Meanwhile, civil rights leaders who defended the school system’s provisional plan hailed the federal court ruling at a press conference as historic and expressed confidence it would hold up under appeal. On Thursday Judge William Young concluded the temporary admission plan drafted in response to the COVID-19 school closures “does not have the effect of subjecting students to discrimination because of their race.”

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“We will be talking about this case for generations to come,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, an intervenor in the lawsuit.

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp., which filed the lawsuit in February on behalf of 14 white and Asian applicants, asked the First Circuit Court of Appeals to rule as soon as possible, noting the school system is preparing to send out admissions letters any day now. Those letters have already been delayed about a month because of the legal dispute.

“Absent relief, the children of Boston will face violations of their constitutional rights and, thus, irreparable harm,” according to the motion.

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 said it wasn’t safe to hold the in-person exams during the pandemic. It was the biggest change in the admission process in more than two decades.

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

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Civil rights leaders, who galvanized to defend the school system’s admission changes, predicted the judge’s ruling would lead to permanent changes in the way students are admitted to the exam schools.

A School Committee task force is currently meeting to devise recommendations to overhaul the admission process, which are expected to be presented sometime this year. The task force is sorting through a range of thorny issues, which include whether to keep the admission exam and permanently adopt ZIP code allocations in some form.

The judge’s ruling should help guide the task force’s work, said Sullivan of the NAACP, who cochairs the task force.

Of significant importance, she said, is that the judge upheld the right of school officials to allocate a majority of exam-school seats by ZIP code in an effort to ensure diversity. The judge agreed with school officials in concluding the plan was race neutral because it doesn’t explicitly consider an applicant’s racial background as a factor in admission decisions.

In its appeal, the parent coalition repeated its contention that school officials are using ZIP code allocations as a proxy for race and argued the judge ignored evidence that school officials were intentionally engineering admission decisions that would favor Black and Latino applicants over Asian and white students.

The change, they argued, violates the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment.

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”The Boston children will also be irreparably harmed by being denied the opportunity to fairly compete for the great majority of seats,” the appeal said, noting the exam schools offer educational opportunities that surpass all other Boston public schools.

It’s not clear when the appellate court will rule on the emergency injunction. But the Boston school system appears undeterred in finalizing admission decisions.

“We believe this is the most equitable way to identify students for admissions to the three exam schools during the pandemic and are moving forward,” Jonathan Palumbo, a school spokesman, said in a statement Friday night.

Susan Finegan, an attorney with Mintz, one of the law firms doing pro bono work for organizations intervening on the school system’s behalf, said she was confident the appeals court would uphold the judge’s ruling.

“It was a very lengthy and thorough and carefully reasoned decision,” she said at the press conference.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, which argued the case for intervenors, called the judge’s ruling “simply wonderful.”

“What this outcome makes clear is ... there is no entitlement to a seat at a highly selective school,” he said.

Espinoza-Madrigal said he particularly appreciated the judge wrote that “the equal protection clause is not a bulwark for the status quo, and that it was actually a laudable endeavor, completely appropriate based on controlling constitutional precedent, and based on Boston’s troubled, racial, and socioeconomic history.”

Boston has been struggling for decades to enroll students into its three exam schools who reflect the school system’s demographics.

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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.

The O’Bryant School of Math and Science, however, has a student population that is more in line with the racial composition of the school system’s student population, while Boston Latin Academy falls somewhere in between the two exam schools.

An initial analysis by a working group that developed the temporary admission changes found it would likely lead to an increase in Black and Latino applicants securing seats, while Asian and white applicants would end up with fewer seats than in past years.

Although the admission change has angered some Asian American families in Boston, it also captured the support of many Asian American community activists, including the Asian Pacific Islander Civic Action Network and Asian American Resource Workshop.

“Asian American community groups and families are proud to be standing with Black and Latinx organizations in this continued fight for education equity,” said Bethany Li, the director of the Asian Outreach Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, and a co-counsel for intervenors on this case, at the press conference. “Discrimination is a reality for students and families that we work with. Asian immigrants also face language barriers that are often ignored.”

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