Federal Judge Sides With School Committee on Temporary Exam School Admissions Policy

Federal Judge William Young late last week issued his decision on the challenge to this year’s altered Exam School Admission process, saying that the temporary admissions system did not discriminate by race against white and Asian students, but it should be a system in place only one year to accommodate COVID-19.

In a 48-page opinion, Judge Young stressed that the plan was well-thought out and accomplished the goals of making the school more geographically and economically diverse, and though race was spoke of, it wasn’t a plan that sought to racially balance the Exam Schools – which would be unconstitutional.

“It comes down to this: This year, the best way for a rising seventh or ninth-grader to get into one of Boston’s three prestigious exam schools is get excellent grades all around (the GPA Criterion), attend a school with a high level of grade inflation, live in a Boston zip code heavily populated with school-age children (geographic diversity) – but hopefully not too many rising seventh or ninth-graders (your direct competition), but a zip code encompassing the poorest residential area of the city (socioeconomic diversity),” he wrote. “…Only the third and fourth criteria bear any correlation to racial demographics at all, and both have been approved by the Supreme Court…The fact that the policymakers appreciated the correlation does not render these diversity criteria unworthy of consideration as rationally advancing proper educational goals for Boston’s children.

“Here, this Court rules only that this one year Plan has a rational basis and denies none of Boston’s citizens the equal protection of the laws,” he continued. “Nor does it violate Massachusetts General Laws. Judgment shall enter for the School Committee defendants.”

That said, Judge Young also ruled that the plan should only be in effect for one year and the new mayor elected in November should champion a robust discussion about how these schools handle admissions in the future.

“The education of one’s children is a matter of prime concern to any parent,” he wrote. “Thus it is worthy of remark that the Plan the Court today upholds applies only to the 2021-2022 school year. All parties here concede there may be better race-neutral ways to handle Exam School admissions. This is also the year of a mayoral election. As the mayor appoints the School Committee, these matters are sure to be, and of right ought be, the subject of lively civic debate.”

The Admissions Process to the three Exam Schools – Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and O’Bryant High School – typically involved a standardized Admissions test and the consideration of grades for students, who all must live in Boston. This year, because of COVID-19, it became impossible to conduct the exam, so that was scrapped for a new system based on zip code and grades that also sought to make the school population more geographically and economically diverse – while at the same time likely increasing the racial diversity as a consequence.

In February, the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence filed suit against the School Committee and it’s plan, saying it – among other things – violated the 14th Amendment and discriminated against white and Asian students. The students and families were from West Roxbury, Chinatown, Beacon Hill and Brighton.

Judge Young said he did not agree with the arguments made by the attorney for those parents, that there was an illegal racial diversity goal that was discussed when formulating the plan and that discussion influenced the plan.

“The School Committee’s goal of a more racially representative student body, although more often discussed and analyzed, did not commandeer the Plan, and it in fact necessarily took a back seat to the Plan’s other goals, which the Plan more aptly achieved,” he wrote. “Consequently, any effect on the racial diversity of the Exam Schools is merely derivative of the Plan’s effect on geographic and socioeconomic diversity — not the reverse. This Court finds and rules that the Plan is race-neutral, and that neither the factors used nor the goal of greater diversity qualify as a racial classification.”

That said, the judge did not take lightly the racial comments made by the School Committee members in formulating the plan, and even racially-insensitive comments toward Asian Americans allegedly made by the former Chair of the School Committee during a hearing on the Admissions Plan in October. He said some of the comments made by the Committee and the Admissions Working Group were cause for concern, but didn’t drive the plan.

“…this Court does not take lightly the statements made by the School Committee and the Working Group,” he wrote. “Without question, some statements raise cause for concern. The statement within the Equity Planning Tool, for example, about a hard pivot away from equality and towards equity simply has no support in the Equal Protection jurisprudence of the Supreme Court…Had this Plan unconstitutionally substituted equality of result for equality of opportunity along racial lines, this Court would not hesitate to strike it down. But that is not what happened here. Apparently well counseled, the School Committee considered diversity and developed its Plan within the permissible framework of the Supreme Court precedent.”

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, who are intervenors on the lawsuit, said the ruling was a victory for all students in Boston.

“Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep inequities in our education system, and created unprecedented and unforeseen challenges for students, educators, school leaders, and families,” read the statement. “The admissions criteria that were the subject of this lawsuit were designed thoughtfully and intentionally to respond to this crisis in a way that is fair to all of our students. By upholding them, 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. 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.”

Almost immediately, the Boston Public Schools sent out instructions about how they would begin issuing invites to students who had applied to enter the seventh grade or ninth grade at the Exam Schools. Due to the lawsuit, sixth grade to seventh grade assignments citywide were delayed for about a month.

“The court issued a ruling today in the exam schools admissions suit that means Boston Public Schools (BPS) can now proceed with the temporary Exam Schools admissions policy as adopted by the Boston School Committee in October 2020,” read the letter. “This one-year policy was developed in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of administering the entrance exam during a public health crisis. We are in the process of finalizing exam school invitations and working with our external independent partner to make sure our final calculations are accurate. Invitations to the three exam schools will be sent via email and regular mail by the end of April as soon as that work is completed.”

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