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The Great Divide

Attempt to water down plan to bring more disadvantaged children into exam schools generates a backlash

Councilor Julia Mejia, shown last month, said Wednesday night, “How much longer are we going to allow political interests to come at the cost of our children’s education?”
Councilor Julia Mejia, shown last month, said Wednesday night, “How much longer are we going to allow political interests to come at the cost of our children’s education?”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

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A public backlash on Wednesday quickly engulfed new recommendations to change the admissions policy for Boston’s elite exam schools, over a last-minute political deal that could benefit more affluent families while threatening to undermine the goal of helping disadvantaged students.

The eleventh-hour changes sparked sharp criticism from parents, students, mayoral candidates, and city councilors, and threatened to overshadow suggested changes to the entrance requirements that would give students from lower-income households a better footing to compete against wealthier peers.

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The cochairs of the task force that drew up the recommendations said at a public meeting Tuesday that they were pressured to set aside 20 percent of all seats at the schools for the students who had the highest composite scores based on grades and test scores citywide, regardless of their socioeconomic status. That exception could benefit families with the means to pay for private tutoring and admission consultants.

That 20 percent carve-out was bolted onto the task force’s recommendation that entrance requirements give more weight to grades than test scores, and seats should be awarded to eligible applicants based on socioeconomic status, starting with students living in the poorest neighborhoods.

Several candidates in this fall’s mayoral race expressed dismay at the late change, and one called on the School Committee, which hopes to adopt a new admissions policy in two weeks, to slow the process down.

“This policy is not ready for a vote, especially with too many eleventh hour changes that are not yet well understood by either policy makers or BPS families,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, a mayoral candidate.

Two other candidates, Jon Santiago, a state representative from the South End, and City Councilor Michelle Wu, said the late concession threatens to undermine public confidence in the school admissions process.

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The changes are on a fast track for approval. The School Committee received the task force’s recommendations Wednesday night and plans to vote on them in mid-July, leaving families with little time to digest and respond to a complex proposal.

At this point, the School Committee is planning to hold just one public hearing on the changes.

Even with the last-minute political tinkering, the proposed changes would level the playing field for poorer students. The current admissions policy was simple to understand, yet tended to favor families of means that could hire tutors to prepare their children for the entrance exam. That system admits applicants to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in order based on a composite score evenly divided between test scores and grades.

Under the revision, 80 percent of all exam-school seats would be distributed to eligible applicants based on their socioeconomic status. Applicants would be dispersed into eight tiers, largely based on census tracts, and seats would be doled out starting with applicants in the lowest tiers.

The task force that devised the recommendations initially wanted to allocate all seats through this method. But on Tuesday the cochairs informed the group they were under political pressure to amend the recommendations to create the exception for high-scoring students.

At Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, the task force’s cochairs presented the 80-20 recommendation. School Committee members asked about the task force’s rationale and possible unintended consequences.

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Committee member Hardin Coleman said he worried the proposal could unwittingly benefit wealthy families that move into poorer neighborhoods.

”The gentrification issue weighed heavy on us,” said task force cochair Tanisha Sullivan, adding the group chose to use census tracts which are smaller than ZIP codes, and other indicators, such as homelessness and public-housing residency.

Other aspects of the proposal call for deemphasizing test scores so they would account for just 30 percent of the composite score, while grades would make up the rest. Applicants from high poverty schools would also receive a 10 point bump in their composite score.

However, for the second straight year, applicants this fall would not have take an entrance exam, due to the disruptions in learning caused by the pandemic. Only next year’s academic grades would be used for admission for the 2022-23 year.

The changes are an outgrowth of a temporary policy, approved last October, that suspended the admission test for a year and distributed seats by grades and largely by ZIP codes, which resulted in a more diverse admissions class at the schools. It also drew an unsuccessful lawsuit by a group of white and Asian families, known as he Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp.

In a separate development Wednesday, federal district court Judge William G. Young notified the parent coalition that, at their request, he was willing to reconsider his earlier ruling upholding the temporary admission criteria.

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Meanwhile, some parents expressed concerns that politics are interfering with the admissions process.

“The exam school task force compromising on their recommendations because of an invisible hand and expected legal backlash from families who benefited from the fight and challenges of people who were and still are eliminated, marginalized, and discriminated against is to say the least, is infuriating,” said Sharon Hinton, a mother, educator, and president of Black Teachers Matter, in comments to the School Committee Wednesday night.

“The School Committee should not even vote on it,” added Katie Everett, the executive director of the Lynch Foundation, a Boston philanthropy that funds school programs.

Everett, whose two children attended Boston Latin School, believes the admissions process needs to change, but said the city isn’t in a position to make thoughtful changes now. Instead, the district should maintain the temporary process while working on a new solution, she said.

The political interference rippled into the City Council meeting Wednesday over the city budget, with one councilor questioning whether some of his fellow councilors were involved in pressuring the task force. As the council was discussing the Boston Public Schools budget, Councilor Julia Mejia said the political changes will make it harder for Black and brown students to get into the exam schools.

“How much longer are we going to allow political interests to come at the cost of our children’s education?” said Mejia.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said he hoped his colleagues were not conditioning their votes on the education budget to exam school policy.

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”I’ve been disturbed reading the reports from the press that the education budget may have been being held hostage for a more inequitable response to that problem,” he said.

The council passed the $1.29 billion Boston Public Schools budget by a 10-2 vote.

Tiffany Luo, an alternate student representative on the School Committee, said she was disappointed that politics influenced the final set of recommendations.

“It would not be fair [to include it] as long as the education in the elementary schools is unequal and inequitable,” Luo said.

Globe reporter Naomi Martin contributed to this report.





James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.