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Federal Judge Upholds One-Year Admissions Change At Boston's Exam Schools

Boston Latin School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Latin School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A federal judge has signed off on Boston's one-year plan to admit students to its exam schools based on their grades and home ZIP codes.

In a decision published late Wednesday, Judge William Young found that the temporary system is imperfect — but passes constitutional muster.

The plan will allot 80% of seats to students with the top grades in their ZIP codes, and is projected to open more seats to Black and Latino applicants. Historically, all three selective high schools — and Boston Latin School in particular — have tended to admit classes with more white and Asian students than there are in the district at large.

A parents' group formed in protest of the plan shortly after it was approved by the Boston School Committee in October. They alleged that it uses ZIP codes, which are strictly race-neutral, to engage in unconstitutional racial balancing — and asked the court to block the plan as it was subjected to strict scrutiny.

Young wasn't persuaded. The judge, who plans to retire in July, found that the parent coalition failed to prove that the plan — prompted in part by the risks of administering an entrance exam during a pandemic — will have a "disparate impact" on the basis of race, or was motivated by racial animus.

In conclusion, Young wrote that the plan does have weaknesses — that students at middle schools with grade inflation, or from a ZIP code with many school-age children, will have an admissions edge — and that "there may be better race-neutral ways" of selecting students in the years ahead.

Young added expressly that the decision only applies to the current admissions cycle, and hoped that the ongoing mayoral race would give the city an opportunity to devise a better long-term system by "democratic decision-making."

With his late-afternoon filing, Young narrowly made the district's hoped-for April 15 deadline; admissions decisions had been delayed pending the decision. Those letters can now go out to students across all of Boston's 29 ZIP codes.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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