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Federal Appeals Court denies request to halt Boston exam school admission decisions

Boston Latin School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A federal appeals court on Wednesday denied a request by a group of Asian-American and white parents to halt the process of enrolling students into Boston’s exam schools under a temporary admission plan, questioning the plaintiffs’ claims of racial discrimination and doubting their appeal would succeed.

In their 27-page ruling, a panel of three judges noted Asian and white students would still secure a disproportionate share of exam-school seats under the temporary plan, which suspends the admission test for a year because of the pandemic. Instead, seats will be allocated by grades and largely student ZIP codes, giving areas with lower family median income higher priority.


Barring school officials from admitting students at this point “would unsettle . . . the plans of thousands of families awaiting those decisions,” according to the ruling by Chief Judge Jeffrey R. Howard of the US First Circuit Court of Appeals and judges O. Rogeriee Thompson and William J. Kayatta Jr..

“The public interest is best served by permitting defendants to finalize and communicate admissions decisions based on the Plan, not by entering plaintiff’s proposed injunction and throwing the Exam School admissions process into chaos,” wrote Kayatta, who authored the opinion.

Kayatta likened the decision to similar rulings the court has made in allowing elections to proceed when the process is in dispute and voting day is near. He admonished the plaintiffs for filing their original lawsuit so late — in February — four months after the School Committee approved the admission plan and weeks before the school system was preparing to send out acceptances.

Boston school officials quickly sent out hundreds of acceptance letters Wednesday afternoon by e-mail and postal service. More than 4,000 students are vying for approximately 1,400 seats in the seventh and ninth grades at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. The process is running more than a month behind schedule because of the lawsuit.


School officials said they were grateful that the appeals court denied the emergency injunction.

”Our goal has been to create the most equitable process for admitting a new class of students into our three exam schools amidst the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic,” school officials said in a statement. “The admissions process affirmed by the court was designed with the community, including school leaders, educators, and civil rights advocates and will ensure that every student is equitably considered for admissions to our exam schools.”

It’s not clear when the appeals court will render a decision on the full appeal, but the case appears doomed at this point. The judges had to consider the likelihood of the appeal being successful in determining whether to grant the emergency injunction, and they repeatedly suggested the plaintiffs didn’t have a strong case.

William Hurd, the attorney for the parents group, said he will be conferring with his clients about their options.

“We are obviously disappointed by the decision,” he said.

Although the admission changes are for only one year, the federal court rulings could have far-reaching implications for future exam-school admissions policies. The School Committee has assembled a task force to recommend permanent changes to the admission criteria, and the group is considering an array of controversial measures, including whether to eliminate the admissions exam or keep the ZIP code allocations.


The Boston branch of the NAACP, which intervened in the case on behalf of the school system, praised the ruling.

“The admissions process put in place as a result of the pandemic for Boston’s highly selective schools is a fair and thoughtful policy that benefits all of Boston’s students,” said Tanisha Sullivan, the Boston branch president who also chairs the School Committee task force. “It is time to shift our collective attention away from court challenges, and towards ensuring that all of our children have the support they need to thrive academically as we pursue an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the City of Boston.”

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp. filed for the emergency injunction earlier this month as part of an appeal of a federal court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the temporary admission plan. The plaintiffs have argued that school officials are relying on ZIP codes as a proxy for race in an effort to boost the enrollment of Black and Latino students.

Federal district court Judge William Young earlier this month strongly disagreed with the plaintiffs in determining the admissions criteria, including zip codes rank-ordered by family income, grade point average, and school preference, “are completely race neutral.”

The appeals court appeared to be leaning towards a similar stance. The judges expressed skepticism about the plaintiffs’ claims of racial discrimination, saying any decreases in the number of Asian and white students admitted under the temporary plan appeared to be small in comparison to the overall success rate of students in those demographics.


Specifically, Kayatta cited projections that showed white students, who constitute 16 percent of the city’s school-age population, would receive 32 percent of the invitations to the three schools; Asian students, who make up 7 percent of the school-age population, would receive 16 percent of the invitations; Black students, who constitute 35 percent of the school-age population, would receive 22 percent of the invitations; and Latino students, who constitute 36 percent of the school-age population, would receive 24 percent of invitations.

At the highly competitive Latin School, white and Asian students hold nearly three-quarters of the seats. The O’Bryant has demographics more representative of school district averages, while Latin Academy falls somewhere in the middle.

“Plaintiff offers no evidence establishing that the numerical decrease in the overrepresentation of whites and Asians under the plan is statistically significant,” he wrote. “A party claiming a disparate impact generally does not even get to first base without such evidence.”


James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him @globevaznis.