In Newton, the everyday version of “Varsity Blues” scandal

Never mind bribing the college tennis coach and all its potential downsides — like a felony conviction and jail time. It turns out going to Newton North High School also sets up students for an extra edge in the college admission race, with the added bonus of being perfectly legal.

There were plenty of jaw-dropping moments as details of the “Varsity Blues” college admission scandal unfolded two months ago. The half-million-dollar payments by Hollywood stars and hedge fund honchos to secure a slot for their son or daughter at USC or another college. The SAT test proctors who were in on the scam and changed answers on tests to boost the scores of the children of the uber rich and connected.

But perhaps the most stunning moment came unintentionally when US Attorney Andrew Lelling announced the indictments that day in Boston.

“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, And I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either,” Lelling said.

As much as the case has blown the lid off the incredible lengths some of those with power and privilege will go to secure unwarranted — and illicit — advantages for their children, by isolating those whose efforts extended in criminal behavior, Lelling’s comment served well the broad swath of well-off American families who enjoy all sorts of advantages in a college admission game touted as a pure meritocracy.

Lelling’s comment seemed laughable because it struck so many as obviously untrue: In countless ways there is a separate college admission system for the wealthy. It’s just that most well-off parents lack the deep pockets, nerve, and amoral sense of complete entitlement that led Felicity Huffman and others to literally buy their child’s way into a school.

But from extra tutoring to boost grades to summer internships and volunteer experiences that round out a student’s profile when applying for college, the children of better-off families enjoy all sorts of advantages over their poorer peers in applying to colleges.

Now add to that another entry: Extra time to take the SAT or ACT tests that can be the critical determinant of whether a high school student gets into a competitive college.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, across the country, students in affluent communities are far more likely than those in lower-income districts to obtain special allowances giving them extra time for test-taking, including for the crucial SAT and ACT exams used for college admissions.

The most egregious example cited in the Journal story, which looked at data from 9,000 US schools? Newton North High School, where an eye-popping one of every three students is eligible for extra test time.

That designation comes either via an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the formal term for special education services for students with learning disabilities, or a separate category known as a 504 designation, based on 1973 federal law. The number of students with 504 designations nationally has tripled from 2000 to 2016, the Journal reports. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has seen a huge surge during this time in requests for special test accommodations, nearly all of which are granted.

Schools set their own standard for making a 504 designation. Sometimes it based only on a request from a parent or a teacher. “Typically,” the article says, a medical professional must make an assessment and conclude that a student suffers from “some condition such as anxiety or attention problems.”

In the Los Angeles area, says the article, the outside evaluation needed for the designation can cost $5,000 to $10,000.

Whatever the specific rules are in each district, families in better-off communities are obtaining the designation at far higher rates than those in poorer communities. The result: Students who already enjoy all the advantages of their family background get an extra thumb on the scale with more time than poorer kids to complete the college admission tests.

Nationally, an average of 4.2 percent of students in wealthier districts have 504 designations, compared with just 1.6 percent of students in poorer districts.

That makes the 33 percent figure at Newton North an extreme outlier even among affluent high schools.

The district’s superintendent, David Fleishman, concedes a point that seems glaringly obvious. “Do I think that more than 30 percent of our students have a disability?” he said. “No. We have a history of over-identification [as learning-challenged] that is certainly an issue in the district.”

The article says Newton is working to reduce the number, but has no specifics on how.

MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

In what may be a sign of a more collaborative relationship between the House and Senate, the Senate tries to limit the number of policy matters addressed in its budget for fiscal 2020. (CommonWealth)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A Natick woman says the town has a rat problem (her service dog was bitten by one), and the municipality needs to address it. (MetroWest Daily News)

Lowell is beefing up electronic surveillance in its Centralville neighborhood with the hopes of catching people illegally dumping trash. (Lowell Sun)

Bourne selectmen on Monday unanimously voted not to keep Thomas Guerino on as town administrator past September. Both Guerino and the board say it was a mutual decision. An outside agency will be hired to find his replacement. (Cape Cod Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson defends a Trump administration plan to disqualify families from living in public housing if they have an undocumented person living with them. (Governing)

NARAL president Ilyse Hogue says people are as fired up now over the wave of anti-abortion laws passed by Alabama and other states as they had been over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. (NPR)

Jeff Jacoby takes issue with the idea that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a “profile in courage” after the Democratic leader was bestowed an award of that name by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. (Boston Globe)

ELECTIONS

Ranked-choice voting and lowering the voting age to 16 pick up momentum in Northampton. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Angus McQuilken, a Democrat who previously ran against Scott Brown for state Senate, is considering running for Congressman Seth Moulton’s seat. (Salem News)

EDUCATION

Before relinquishing her position to Boston’s incoming superintendent of schools, interim superintendent Laura Perille will propose combining schools, extending 17 elementary schools into sixth grade, and closing the Edwards Middle School. (WBUR) 

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr pointed to the Senate budget investment of $15 million for nursing home stabilization, and the creation of a task force to study the industry’s stability as nurses, caretakers and advocates protested at the State House on Tuesday. (State House News Service)

A dead 13-year-old girl from Amesbury was dropped off at Lawrence General Hospital on Monday night, and prosecutors expect it will take some time before the cause of death is determined. (Eagle-Tribune)

An employee of Roy Moore Fish Shack was diagnosed with hepatitis A causing the Rockport restaurant to be temporarily shut down. (Gloucester Daily Times)

TRANSPORTATION

The Research Bureau of Worcester issues a report saying the Worcester Regional Transit Authority should try offering free bus service. (Telegram & Gazette) A copy of the report is here.

T notes: State transportation officials estimate South Coast Rail will need an operating subsidy of $9 million to $12 million a year….The state’s highway administrator defends closing down the HOV lane on I-93. (CommonWealth)

After a five-year study, MassDOT has recommended replacing the Sagamore and Bourne bridges. (Cape Cod Times)

The US Postal Service has partnered with TuSimple on a two-week pilot program to move mail between Phoenix and Dallas using self-driving trucks. (NPR)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Jane Rothchild, who oversees appeal cases at the Department of Environmental Protection, told attorneys Tuesday that she would give residents and communities who challenged the project’s air-quality permit until Thursday evening to respond to the more than 700 pages of new data the state provided just before the final day of the appeal hearing last week. Last year, the state DEP sent air samples from the site of a proposed natural gas compressor station in Weymouth to a private laboratory and asked scientists to test for the presence of 64 different potential toxins. (State House News Service/Patriot Ledger)

CASINOS

MGM Resorts ends talks to buy the Everett casino owned by Wynn Resorts, and Wynn now says it is committed to opening its casino. (State House News) It was the politics of a deal, not the financials, that caused the company to pull back, says Globe business columnist Jon Chesto.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Globe profiles Shelley Joseph, the Newton district court judge who is suddenly in the news — as a defendant in the case brought by US Attorney Andrew Lelling over her handling of a case with an undocumented immigrant.

Federal investigators are now involved in the case of three deliberately set fires at Jewish centers in Arlington and Needham. (Boston Globe)

Plymouth Superior Court Judge Cornelius Moriarty delivered a win for the prosecution in the retrial of Darrell Jones, determining that three witnesses who said they didn’t remember much from the murder scene in 1985 were lying or feigning lack of memory. (WBUR)

MEDIA

How Google and Facebook became two of the biggest funders of journalism in the world. (Columbia Journalism Review)