Boston Is Ready To Admit Exam School Students. First, A Federal Judge Must Weigh In. 

The federal judge reviewing Boston’s plan to reform its exam-school admissions policy for evidence of discrimination said he hopes to arrive at a decision in the coming weeks.

During a hearing Tuesday morning, Judge William Young acknowledged a “time constraint” — that Boston Public Schools has yet to inform applicants whether they’ve been admitted to one of the city’s three selective high schools.

Young has sought to settle this case quickly given the need to plan for next year. But he also promised to weigh strong arguments from city officials and the parent group accusing them of putting white and Asian students at an unfair disadvantage.

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, a non-profit group, was established in November, just weeks after the city’s school committee voted to scrap the exam requirement to enter the Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

In their complaint filed in February (PDF), the coalition alleges that the school committee's one-year interim admissions process — which considers applicants’ high school grades and, in most cases, their home ZIP codes — is “wholly irrational” and would “deprive some school children of educational opportunity based on their race or ethnicity.”

The coalition was represented Tuesday by Bill Hurd, the former solicitor general of the state of Virginia and now a partner at the law firm of Troutman Pepper.

As they unveiled the new admissions process in October, a Boston Public Schools task force presented the interim system as a common-sense response to the pandemic’s disruptions. But they also noted the “equity impact” it could have at the exam schools, which tend to enroll more white and Asian students than the district's open-enrollment high schools.

The task force presented projections that Black and Latino students could see their share of exam-school seats jump from 35% to 46% if the plan were implemented.

Hurd seized on those and similar statements Tuesday, arguing that they offered unusually straightforward proof that the state’s largest school district seeks to engage in unconstitutional racial balancing.

“We don't just have a smoking gun here. We have the shooter’s fingerprints all over the handle,” Hurd said as he asked the judge to submit the coalition’s complaint to strict scrutiny. “[District officials] have admitted in the record that they were trying to reverse-engineer this and to achieve certain racially-desirable … outcomes.”

Defense counsel Kay Hodge cited precedent to argue that policymakers can “consider race” as they make decisions — “it just cannot be the motivating reason why you do something.”

Attorneys for Harvard University successfully used a similar argument to defend its admissions regime against claims of discrimination against Asian American applicants in 2017.

On Tuesday, Hodge said the district's interim plan was a valid “socioeconomic way of responding to the devastating impact” of COVID-19, especially in working-class Black and Latino communities. And while the plan might foster racial diversity at those schools, it would also build up other kinds of diversity — socioeconomic, linguistic and geographic — at the selective schools.

Hodge added that, given the long shadow of busing and intense segregation in Boston, “anyone who ignored race entirely would be foolhardy.”

Finally, Doreen Rachal — representing the NAACP and other groups supporting the district — tried to invert the entire narrative of the case, arguing that the largely white and Asian parents heading up the coalition sought an undue entitlement on racial grounds.

“What the plaintiffs are essentially arguing is that somehow, the children in the Chinatown ZIP code, and the children in West Roxbury ZIP code ... own” a certain number of seats in Boston's exam schools," Rachal said. “To the extent that this [admissions change] will reduce their ownership … somehow it is racial discrimination.”

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

To the contrary, Rachal argued, the district “believes that all of the seats are open to all students without regard to their race, their ethnicity, their economic circumstance” — and the proposed change works toward that priority.

Judge Young — who plans to retire from regular service as a judge in July — peppered all three attorneys with questions, and some skeptical remarks, throughout the two-hour hearing.

On their website, Boston Public Schools warns expectant families that they are currently unable to mail out admissions letters “due to the ongoing lawsuit” — but “expect that a decision will be made by the court by April 15, 2021."

Young — who has placed this case on an expedited timetable — said he has a number of options still to consider: whether he needs to hear more evidence, and whether to seek a temporary or permanent injunction to block the revised admissions process from taking effect this spring.

Those considerations will take time, Young said — and may put the resolution sometime beyond the district's hoped-for April 15 deadline.

“For me, the 15th of April, it's no longer Tax Day, and I'm not required to give an opinion by that date,” he said at the hearing’s end. “I am sensitive to the needs of the school committee to actually function — but my duty is to the Constitution.”


Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live