Active: Federal lawsuit seeks to restore equal treatment in K-12 education

Boston Public Schools (BPS) operates three prestigious “exam schools” for students in grades 7-12. The Boston Latin School, recognized as the nation’s oldest public school, along with the Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, are three of the most highly regarded public high schools in America.

Admission to these schools was traditionally decided on a merit-based “composite score” comprised of grade point average (GPA) and an admissions exam. Students were admitted according to score rankings until each school was full.

Academic rigor and performance aside, BPS grew dissatisfied with the schools’ racial composition. In 2019, the school district set out to change the admissions policy in a process that was blatantly, transparently—and unconstitutionally—preoccupied with race.

BPS and the working group assigned to develop a proposed new policy made no secret of their desire to fill classrooms with a preferred racial balance. In one instance, a working group member said one imperative was “rectifying historic racial inequities afflicting exam school admissions for generations.” Others expressed explicit racial animus, including School Committee Chair Michael Loconto, who was caught on a hot mic mocking Chinese names—while two of his colleagues laughed in response via text message.

The school board ultimately replaced the established citywide admissions process with a ZIP Code quota. Students with the highest GPAs would fill 20% of seats at each school, with the remaining 80% of seats going to students from each ZIP Code on the basis of GPA.

The new policy had an immediate impact. In fall 2021, white student representation in seventh- and ninth-grade classes dropped from 33% to 24% while Asian American representation dropped from 21% to 16%. ZIP Codes with mostly white and Asian American students—specifically Chinatown and West Roxbury—had much higher competition for seats. The average GPA of students admitted from West Roxbury was 11.51 compared to several other ZIP Codes where the average GPA was at least two points lower.

In other words, students who would have earned admission under a citywide competition were instead denied the same educational opportunity under the new policy.

This includes at least five children whose parents are members of the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence. The nonprofit coalition of students, parents, alumni, and future exam school applicants supports merit-based admissions, as well as improving the school district’s K-6 pipeline.

Under the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, government cannot use racial proxies such as ZIP Codes, either wholly or in part, to pursue a goal of racial balance. In this case, the evidence that race alone prompted the policy change is overwhelming and undeniable.

Nevertheless, when the coalition challenged the admissions policy and the school board’s overt racial discrimination, a federal district court dismissed the case—even when presented with racist text messages between board members.

The district has since modified its admissions policy, but the damage remains. The ZIP Code quota discriminated against students who are still entitled to admission, and school officials were never held to account for violating the students’ rights to equality before the law.

Represented free of charge by PLF, the coalition is appealing the ruling. They want equal opportunity for all students to compete now, and to prevent similar discriminatory policies in the future.

This case is the latest in PLF’s growing list of cases fighting racial discrimination in K-12 admissions. Our goal is to establish that school districts cannot manipulate school admissions to achieve a desired racial outcome.

What’s At Stake?

  • Whether direct or by proxy, government’s use of skin color or ethnicity to choose who can attend public schools is immoral and unconstitutional. It hurts everyone, particularly those students discriminated against, when specious racial goals are elevated over freedom of opportunity.

Case Timeline

June 14, 2022