Boston exam schools face court test

Race is again at the center of federal lawsuit over admissions 

HERE WE GO again.

More than two decades after federal lawsuits forced Boston to ditch admission policies that set aside  seats for black and Latino students at the city’s selective-entry 7-12 grade public schools, the issue of how students are admitted to the three schools is back in court. An organization representing Asian American and white is challenging a new admission policy that would award seats based on a combination of grades and ZIP code.

The two sides offered arguments yesterday in federal court, with US District Court Judge William Young under pressure to rule quickly because the city needs to let students know about admission decisions for the fall. 

The School Committee adopted the new scheme last fall as a temporary response to the pandemic, which precluded administration of a standardized test that has been used along with grades to select students, but many expected it to become a permanent change. A presentation to the School Committee on the new system projected that it would increase the share of black and Latino students at the three exam schools — Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — by more than 10 points, from 35 percent to 46 percent. 

The plaintiffs argue that setting aside a set number of seats for each ZIP code will effectively crowd out Asian American and white students. Residents of Chinatown and West Roxbury, for example, neighborhoods that have traditionally had lots of students admitted to the exam schools, will be competing for a limited number of seats rather than vying simply as part of the citywide pool of applicants. 

At the heart of the case is the question of whether racial considerations are the driving factor behind the change — something that federal courts have said would be illegal. The School Department’s lawyer, Kay Hodge, argued that the city can “consider race” as long it is “not the motivating reason why you do something.” 

But race has long been at the heart of debate over exam school admissions, and the School Department’s own presentation last fall on how the proposed change would affect the racial makeup of the schools suggested it was uppermost in officials’ minds in crafting the plan. 

“We don’t just have a smoking gun here. We have the shooter’s fingerprints all over the handle,” William Hurd, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told Young, citing the presentation. 

 When the lawsuit was filed in February, Globe columnist Adrian Walker laid out the conundrum the city was facing. “The group that’s suing — officially, on behalf of 14 Asian and white students and their families — argues that ZIP code is being used here as a transparent proxy for race and ethnicity, which is pretty much true,” he wrote

But Walker argued that the new system would help balance an admission process that had favored those who can afford private test prep or understand how to navigate their child’s way into advanced work programs, which only some of the city’s elementary schools offer. 

The backdrop to all of this is the winners-and-losers desperation families feel about landing a seat at one of the three exam schools. For many families, it feels like a zero-sum game, with a seat at an exam school seen as the only reliable route to college success. 

While the exam school controversy sucks up all the oxygen, that fact — and the often troubled state of the city’s “open enrollment” high schools that it points to — gets ignored, though it represents a much bigger challenge for the district to address.