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School Ordered To Admit Student Challenging Quota Policy

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Getting into Boston Latin School, the most prestigious of the city's three selective public high schools, has never been a cakewalk. For Julia McLaughlin, though, it took a court order to get her through the door.

She had hoped to enter the nation's oldest public school last fall, but was denied admission because of a policy that reserves 35 percent of the student slots for African-Americans and Hispanics.

The McLaughlin family sued in federal court, in a case that is being widely followed as part of the national debate over racial quotas and preferences. Julia, who is white, had posted higher grades and entrance-exam scores than many minority candidates who were accepted.

Last month, just days before the start of the new semester last week, U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the school to find room for Julia in its 8th-grade class.

And although he is reserving final judgment until after a trial, Judge Garrity made clear in his order that the current set-aside policy, although well-intended, would probably not pass constitutional muster.

"We're thrilled with it," said Mark A. White, who is Julia's co-counsel along with her father, Michael McLaughlin.

Henry Dinger, a lawyer for the Boston public schools, acknowledged that the district has a tough row to hoe. But he said the district could prove that the quotas are justified.

Whether it will have a chance to do so, however, is uncertain.

Changes in Store

Even before the judge announced his order, school officials were exploring changes to the admissions systems at Boston Latin and the two other selective schools.

After the ruling, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints the city's school board, made clear that he thinks the current system must go. Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant now intends to present recommendations for changes to the board later this month.

And the board is expected to reassess its position in the McLaughlin case in light of these developments. Still, if the case proceeds to trial, it has the potential for breaking new ground in the debate over merit vs. race in school admissions.

"The development of the law in this politically charged area is far from complete," Judge Garrity wrote.

Not Narrow Enough

It was Judge Garrity who originally approved the Boston Latin set-aside policy in 1976 as part of a desegregation plan that ushered in the city's tumultuous experiment with forced busing.

Throughout his order deciding Julia's fate, Judge Garrity expressed sympathy for the need for some type of race-conscious admissions system at Boston Latin.

If candidates had been admitted solely on the basis of test scores and grades, he pointed out, only 15 percent of Boston Latin's students last year would have been black or Hispanic even though those groups made up 71 percent of the district's enrollment.

Doing away with the preferences, he said, would shortly "convert [Boston Latin] into an overwhelmingly white and Asian- American school."

Nevertheless, the judge added, whatever good reasons exist for the policy, "they are not sufficient to answer the plaintiff's charge here: that however justifiable and appropriate the set-aside might once have been, it is not now, in August 1996, narrowly enough tailored to pass constitutional muster."

The judge proposed three alternatives to the current system:

  • Setting quotas based on the proportion of applicants from various racial and ethnic categories;
  • Holding a lottery among students who posted a minimum score on the entrance exam; and
  • Reserving a third of the slots for those with the highest grades and scores and then filling the rest by lottery.

Mr. Payzant has declined to discuss specifics of his upcoming recommendations to the board. But district officials say the reappraisal will likely extend to the district's entire desegregation plan, a controlled-choice system that has been in place for nearly a decade.

"It will fan out eventually to taking a look at the entire student-assignment process,' said Jane Feinberg, a district spokeswoman.

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