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Appeals panel hears Boston parents' fight against exam school admissions policy

The John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
The John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

A legal challenge to Boston’s revised approach to admissions at its three selective exam schools continued in federal appeals court Wednesday.

The city prevailed twice in district court in 2021. But the suing parents appealed, arguing the admissions policy was discriminatory against white and Asian American students, denying several of them seats. They want the First Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the prior rulings, paving the way for their children to be admitted.

Wednesday's hearing was the latest indication of ongoing bitterness between the city and some parents in the struggle over the policy changes designed to foster diversity at the prestigious public schools.

The interim admissions policy was used to select the schools' incoming 7th- and 9th-grade students for the fall of 2021. It eliminated an entrance exam over fears it wasn't safe to administer during the pandemic. It sought out students with the top grades in each of Boston's ZIP codes. And it gave preference to qualified students from relatively low-income ZIP codes.

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit based in Brighton, alleges that — under that plan — at least five otherwise qualified students were unfairly denied exam school seats.

In his brief and at Wednesday's oral arguments, the coalition’s attorney Chris Kieser argued that the plan’s logic is only superficially “race-neutral,” and that city officials deliberately used it to build Black and Latino representation at the school.

Kieser observed that William Young — the district court judge who twice ruled against the coalition in 2021 — concluded that text messages leaked that summer proved “beyond question that at least one member of the School Committee harbored animus toward” white families.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the city argued that at this point the coalition's complaints should be deemed moot.

Kay Hodge, representing the school committee, said the group is seeking a remedy for five "unnamed students" from a “one-year, COVID-required solution” that’s no longer in effect.

Attorney Doreen Rachal of the NAACP, which intervened on the city’s behalf, added the coalition failed to establish statistically significant evidence or expert testimony that the plan was racially discriminatory against white and Asian American students.

Rachal argued that in fact white and Asians "continue to be overrepresented” at the exam schools, when compared to their share of the school-age population in Boston.

In the 20 years since a court case ended use of race-based "set-asides," the exam schools' racial makeup has not reflected the rest of the city. As of 2019, the Boston Latin School enrolled three times as many white students as the Boston Public Schools at large.

In the current school year, white students occupy 38% of the seats at the Boston Latin School, compared to 46% in 2019-20. The school's Black enrollment has climbed from 7.6% to 12% in the same period.

The city’s permanent admissions policy — enacted last year and not at issue in the case — uses a similar logic to the temporary plan it replaced. But it eschews ZIP codes in favor of smaller “census tracts.”

Both plans have contributed to growing diversity, both racial and socioeconomic, at the schools.

The panel of three appellate judges did not sound keen to overturn Young’s rulings Wednesday.

Judge William J. Kayatta, Jr. noted that the U.S. Supreme Court is already weighing a related case this fall: whether the consideration of race in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina discriminates against white and Asian American applicants.

Addressing Kieser, Kayatta said, “You seem to be going a step beyond that… to be saying you can't use non-racial, facially neutral factors, if your purpose is to increase diversity.”

Kieser responded that it is "well-established" in case law that authorities can't use even race-neutral means to further a discriminatory purpose.

Related:

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

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