Tuesday, May 4, 2021
First Circuit Declines to Halt Geography-Based School Admissions Program
The First Circuit last week declined to enjoin Boston Public School's geography- and income-based admissions program for its elite magnet schools. The ruling says that plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on their equal protection challenge to the admissions program.
The case, Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence v. School Committee of the City of Boston, challenges the Boston Public School's admission program to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science for the 2021-22 school year. With more applicants than the schools could admit, the system turned to a two-phase admissions process. In the first phase, all students are ranked city-wide by GPA; the highest-ranked students are assigned their first choice until 20 percent of each school's seats are full. In the second phase, the 80 percent remaining seats are distributed among the city's various zip codes by population. Students are ranked by GPA within their zip codes and compete for admission with other students within their zip codes. The program admits top-ranked students in the zip code with the lowest household median income first, then moves to the zip code with the next lowest income, and so on, through the zip codes by incomes, lowest to highest.
Based on projections, Black and Latinx students would receive fewer seats than their proportional representation in the school-age population at large. White and Asian students, by contrast, would receive proportionally more seats.
Still, White and Asian students sued, arguing that they'd receive disproportionally even more seats without the zip-code-income-based program. They claimed that the program violated equal protection, because it was based on purposeful racial discrimination.
The First Circuit rejected the claim. It said that the program was racially neutral on its face, and that the plaintiffs failed to make out an Arlington Heights case of unconstitutional discriminatory impact. The court noted that the numbers alone didn't reveal a disparate impact on White or Asian students, and that the plaintiffs failed sufficiently to point to other circumstantial evidence of racial intent.
In particular, the court rejected the plaintiffs' claim that the program was impermissibly based in part on the Board's desire to diversify the schools by socioeconomic status, race, and geography: "the mere invocation of racial diversity as a goal is insufficient to subject [a facially neutral school selection plan] to strict scrutiny."
It also rejected the plaintiff's claim that some of the people involved in developing the policy sought to achieve racial balancing. "The fact that public school officials are well aware that race-neutral selection criteria--such as zip code and family income--are correlated with race and that their application would likely promote diversity does not automatically require strict scrutiny of a school system's decision to apply those neutral criteria."
The ruling leaves the program in place while the case proceeds. As a practical matter, the ruling almost certainly (absent something extraordinary) allows the Boston schools to use the program for the 2021-22 school year.