Boston exam schools face court test

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. 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Legislative budget hearings are typically dry discussions of line items and government programs, but when Department of Children and Families Commissioner Linda Spears took the stand virtually on Tuesday lawmakers were reminded in stark terms of the life-or-death decisions involved in determining how state dollars are spent and how individual agencies function. Read more.

Gov. Charlie Baker was fine with Northeastern University requiring students to be vaccinated by the fall semester, despite his opposition to mandatory vaccinations for other populations. He also got his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine and refused to say whether his administration will do away with proposed regulations to have electric ratepayers subsidize biomass power plants. Read more.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker teamed up with Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to advocate for a policy both have proposed that would curb the growth in prescription drug prices. Read more

Opinion

Ed Lambert of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and Eileen Rudden of LearnLaunch call for using federal aid on proven education strategies such as acceleration academies, two weeks of programming for students that can lead to six months of recovered reading skills, and high-dosage tutoring, 50 minutes a day for one year that can help students recover 1-2 years of math skills. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Some lawmakers are seeking to amend the state Constitution to make it gender neutral. (Salem News)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

MassLive creates a database which you can search by city or town to find the average property tax bill in that community. 

A new report says the gap is growing wider between the haves and have-nots in Cambridge. (Boston Globe

US Rep. Richard Neal visits homes whose foundations are cracking because they were built decades ago with pyrrhotite in the concrete – a problem he has been working to address in Washington. (MassLive)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

A new poll from Western New England University finds people are feeling less worried about the coronavirus, but there are differences by race and political affiliation. (MassLive)

Massachusetts General Hospital president Peter Slavin will step down after 18 years helming the renowned medical center. (Boston Globe

ELECTIONS

Boston mayoral candidate Jon Santiago’s campaign manager resigned six weeks after the South End state rep launched his City Hall bid. (Boston Herald)  

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Boston-based Social Finance’s pay-for-success model is drawing attention with its job training programs that only charge enrollees if they land positions in the area they train for. The organization plans to propose to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh that the federal government provide matching funds for the efforts. (New York Times)

EDUCATION

The Duxbury School District fires the gym teacher accused of raping a student. (Patriot Ledger)

While Northeastern University says it will require students returning to campus this fall to be vaccinated, other area colleges and universities don’t seem to be jumping to follow suit, with a number of them saying only that they are weighing how to handle the issue, (Boston Herald)

ARTS/CULTURE

George Clooney will be in Worcester this week to film scenes from The Tender Bar. (Telegram & Gazette)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The Weymouth natural gas compressor reports an unplanned release of gas – for the third time since September. (Patriot Ledger)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The three researchers who studied the effect of non-prosecution of low-level misdemeanors in Suffolk County — Amanda Agan, Jennifer Doleac, and Anna Harvey — summarize their findings and the implications for future policy in the Washington Post. Here’s CommonWealth’s story from last week on the study.

The ACLU files a lawsuit before the SJC against the Hampden District Attorney’s office, accusing the DA of failing to investigate the use of excessive force by the Springfield Police and calling for a deeper investigation. (WBUR)