Victory! Federal Appeals Court Upholds Boston’s Exam School Admissions Policy



Multi-Racial Coalition That Intervened In Lawsuit To Support Plan Applauds Ruling

In a unanimous decision issued yesterday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the exam school admissions policy used by Boston Public Schools for the 2021-2022 school year did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  The policy, which relied on GPAs and zip codes, resulted in increased socioeconomic, geographic, and racial diversity at Boston’s three highly selective schools (Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School, and the John D. O’Bryant School).

Enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Plan was challenged in federal court by a group that alleged that it was unconstitutional. The Boston Branch of the NAACP, the Greater Boston Latino Network, the Asian Pacific Islanders Civic Action Network (APIs CAN), the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW), and two families of color intervened in the lawsuit to support the Plan.

The decision comes after a three-year court battle, which had already resulted in a preliminary ruling in favor of the Plan.  In this week’s opinion, the First Circuit Court of Appeals re-affirmed that preliminary ruling, holding that the Plan was constitutional because it did not use the race of any individual student to determine their admission.  The Court held that the Plan properly sought to increase geographic and socioeconomic diversity and reduce under-representation of Black and Latino students: “There is nothing constitutionally impermissible about a school district including racial diversity as a consideration and goal in the enactment of a facially neutral plan.”

The challenged Plan has since been replaced by a new admissions policy that is also race-neutral, relies on GPA and an assessment, and prioritizes students who live in socioeconomically disadvantaged census tracts.

The intervening organizations and families are represented by Lawyers for Civil RightsSidley Austin LLPMintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C.; the Asian Outreach Center of Greater Boston Legal Services; and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund

The decision is available here

Quotes And Reactions From Intervenors And Their Counsel

Oren Sellstrom, Litigation Director at Lawyers for Civil Rights: “We applaud this thorough and well-reasoned decision.  School districts not only can but should take affirmative steps to ensure that educational opportunities are equally available to all. Our schools are stronger when classrooms are diverse and students from a wide range of backgrounds can learn from each other.”

Doreen Rachal on behalf of Sidley Austin LLP team (additional team members: Jennifer Clark, Melanie Berdecia, Lakeisha Mays, Christian Babin, Joanne Louis, and Rebecca Brooks): “The First Circuit’s decision advances fairness. The one-year admissions process implemented during the pandemic reflected the primary goal of having a fair selection process despite pandemic-related disruptions, while also ensuring that the selective schools better reflect all students in the City of Boston. Since the outset of this litigation, we have argued that the temporary plan was race neutral and did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it did not result in a disparate impact and was not motivated by a discriminatory intent or purpose. We are pleased that the First Circuit affirmed that the plan was constitutional.” 

Mathilda McGee-Tubb on behalf of the Mintz team (Sue Finegan, Andy Nathanson, Laura Martin, Amanda Clairmont, and Jason Burrell): “The First Circuit’s decision confirms the constitutionality of race-neutral policies designed to facilitate equitable access.  It further validates that socioeconomic considerations can constitute reasonable criteria for assembling a diverse student body.”

Bethany Li of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund: “Asian Americans recognize that equity in education only comes when Black and Latino communities also have meaningful access and opportunities. Public education benefits from students of all backgrounds.”

Janet Vo of the Asian Outreach Center of Greater Boston Legal Services: “Black, Latino, and Asian families and students within Boston continue to face educational disparities due to income, language access, and discrimination. This critical decision affirms the right to equitable access to education for all students.”

Tanisha M. Sullivan, Esq., President NAACP Boston Branch: “As co-chair of the team that designed the exam school admissions policy and president of the NAACP Boston Branch I know first hand the intentionality that went into advancing a policy that complies with the law and helps ensure that our selective schools are accessible to children in every zip code.  As with many education access battles this continues to be a long road and we’ve endured both personal and organizational attacks in response to this work so I am grateful for the affirmation we received from both the lower court and 1st Circuit.”

Carolyn Chou, steering committee member of APIs CAN: “Through our work with parents and students in public school systems, APIs CAN recognizes that racial inequity will continue so long as communities of color are pitted against each other. Though often not recognized, the socioeconomic experiences of Asian American vary greatly. Many BPS Asian students are children of restaurant, hotel, home care, and nail salon workers, and their families struggle with access to education.”