Judge upholds change in exam-school admissions for the coming year

A federal judge ruled Thursday that the Boston School Committee can proceed with selecting students for the city's three exam schools via a formula based on grade point average and Zip codes, rather than using GPAs and the traditional entrance exams.

US District Court Judge William Young said the new method, enacted due to the difficulties of giving multiple-choice tests in the middle of a pandemic, was not racially biased.

"This Court finds and rules that the Plan is race-neutral, and that neither the factors used nor the goal of greater diversity qualify as a racial classification," Young wrote in a decision on a suit brought by a group of White and Asian American parents.

Boston Public Schools had initially hoped to begin sending out acceptance letters to families on Thursday for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O'Bryant School. After the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp. filed its suit, Young had pressed both sides to speed up their filings so that students and parents would not be left hanging, wondering whether they were accepted.

The parent group contended the new method, in which the top 20% of students sent acceptance letters would be chosen citywide by GPA, with the rest based on their GPA by Zip code, starting with the city's poorest districts, discriminated against Whites and Asian-Americans.

But Young explained it did not. Young noted the plan, approved by the School Committee in October, does not use explicit racial designations to select potential candidates for seats at the three schools and so is "facially race neutral," and that while the School Committee obviously considered the issue of racial equity in its deliberations, by itself that only recognizes the reality of Boston demographics, not an explicit decision to bias the selection process against Whites and Asian-Americans.

In fact, he criticized the parents' filings for their "cavalier interpretations" of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection doctrine.

"Without question, some statements raise cause for concern. The statement within the Equity Planning Tool, for example, about a hard pivot away from equality and towards equity simply has no support in the Equal Protection jurisprudence of the Supreme Court," he wrote. "Had this Plan unconstitutionally substituted equality of result for equality of opportunity along racial lines, this Court would not hesitate to strike it down.

But that is not what happened here."

He continued that, if anything, the School Committee took another tack: That while it did consider race, the plan it approved also accomplished another goal having nothing directly to do with race, to ensure that students get into the schools from all neighborhoods and economic classes.

"Apparently well counseled, the School Committee considered diversity and developed its Plan within the permissible framework of the Supreme Court precedent. Despite its goal of greater "racial, socioeconomic and geographic diversity [better to reflect the diversity of] all students (K-12)," the Plan principally anchors itself to geographic diversity by equally apportioning seats to the City's zip codes according to the criterion of the zip code's percentage of the City's school-age children. ... The Plan similarly anchors itself to socioeconomic diversity by ordering the zip codes within each round by their median family income. The Plan is devoid, however, of any anchor to race.

"Viewing everything through the prism of race is both myopic and endlessly divisive. Geographic and socioeconomic diversity are appropriate educational goals in their own right, regardless of race. ... They are not mere shibboleths or surrogates for racial balancing. Indeed, Boston's richly varied cultural heritage, see, e.g., Mark Peterson, The City-State of Boston (Princeton Univ. Press 2019), makes it all the more appropriate to draw the Exam Schools' entering class from every corner of the City. Likewise, putting the poorest neighborhoods first in the draw is a bold attempt to address America's caste system.

"The School Committee's goal of a more racially representative student body, although more often discussed and analyzed, did not commandeer the Plan, and it in fact necessarily took a back seat to the Plan's other goals, which the Plan more aptly achieved. Consequently, any effect on the racial diversity of the Exam Schools is merely derivative of the Plan's effect on geographic and socioeconomic diversity -- not the reverse."

Young cautioned he was only approving the BPS plan for the 2021-22 school year.

After voting to approve the new plan in October, the School Committee voted to retain the task force that had developed it, to look at ways of making the exam-school student bodies more diverse.

"All parties here concede there may be better race-neutral ways to handle Exam School admissions," Young wrote.