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Boston parents ask federal appeals court to overturn exam school admission decision and let their children attend

Boston Latin School.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A group of white and Asian parents in Boston is seeking to have at least five students admitted to the city’s exam schools after they failed to secure seats under a temporary admission policy last year, according to documents filed Tuesday in the federal appeals court.

The Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence contends the students had earned grades high enough to secure seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science, but were denied admission because there weren’t enough seats allotted to their ZIP codes under the temporary policy.

While Boston is no longer using the temporary admission policy that limited exam school seats last year for each city ZIP Code in an effort to increase diversity, a new policy that was enacted this year also divides seats across geographic regions, this time by grouping together areas with similar socio-economic characteristics. The legal challenge over the temporary policy persists amid growing concerns nationwide over the future of affirmative action.


The plaintiff’s request is part of a broader effort to convince the First Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a ruling last spring by a lower court judge, who upheld the legality of a temporary admission policy, which for the first and only time largely allotted seats by grades and students’ ZIP codes.

That policy resulted in more Black and Latino students gaining admission while fewer Asian and white applicants got in. Previously, students competed citywide for seats.

“Because these students were deprived of seats at the Exam Schools because of their race, the judgment . . . should be reversed,” the plaintiff brief said.

The lawsuit comes as a shift to the right on the US Supreme Court is raising concerns about whether cases like this one could undermine affirmative action if it makes its way there and prevails.


Already, the nation’s highest court is poised to hear two cases this fall about the use of race in selective college admissions, including one focused on Harvard’s admissions policy, that could have ripple effects in the K-12 sector. Colleges are now strategizing new ways to diversify their campuses without relying on race as a factor.

Meanwhile, a growing number of lawsuits contesting admission policies in selective public high schools are percolating across the country. The Supreme Court has dabbled in one of those cases this spring — centering on a magnet school in Fairfax, Va. — but decided not to intervene, at least for now, and sent it back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fairfax case is being widely watched because unlike the Boston case a federal district court judge has ruled in favor of parents who argued the admission policy discriminated against Asian Americans and ordered Fairfax County Schools to stop using it. Fairfax is continuing with the policy while pursuing the appeal.

Also of particular interest to many parents, educators, and civil rights advocates is the involvement of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing parents who oppose the admission policy changes in Fairfax and the Boston parents contesting the temporary exam school policy.

There are key distinctions, however, between the two cases, said Matt Cregor, a staff attorney at Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee and an expert on school desegregation cases. Specifically, a federal district court judge determined last year the Boston plan was constitutional and the appeals court already indicated in a separate decision the plaintiffs appeal would be unsuccessful.


“It’s a long way from where this case is now to the US Supreme Court potentially saying something different than what our federal courts have already said about it,” said Cregor, who was part of a Boston Public Schools working group that drafted the temporary admission policy.

The parent coalition is hoping to persuade the appeals court to rule differently based on new evidence, which came to light since that court initially weighed in, and that their arguement proves the School Committee intended to discriminate against Asian and white applicants.

For instance, they point to text messages that emerged last spring between two School Committee members who made racially insensitive remarks about white parents from West Roxbury on the night they approved the temporary admission policy.

Those text messages were never entered into the court record during the original district court case and school attorneys have said it was an oversight rather than an attempt to conceal evidence that could jeopardize their case. The revelation prompted a federal district court judge to withdraw his written opinion upholding the temporary policy, although the overarching decision itself still stands.

The plaintiffs contend the text messages add to an existing body of evidence in the original case that shows racial animus. That evidence includes a separate incident on the night of the School Committee vote during which the chairman at the time was caught on a hot microphone mocking public speakers who had Asian-sounding names.


Boston school officials declined to comment on the plaintiff’s brief. Officials have until July 19 to file their response in the appeals court.

The plaintiffs’ persistence in pursuing the lawsuit shows the case is more than just about their children, but an attempt to undermine affirmative action nationwide, said Lisa Green of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, a diverse alliance of education advocacy groups, community organizations, and civil rights groups.

“Given the recent actions of this Supreme Court, many [in Boston] who initially considered the plaintiff’s lawsuit to be a joke now see the very real potential for a national regression on civil rights that it presents,” Green said. “Maybe another lawsuit will get there first, but it would be a tragedy if such a stain on this country were to be triggered by a handful of people here in Boston. It would drag us right back to the days of Louise Day Hicks.”

The Globe’s Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him @globevaznis.