U.S. Judge Upholds Race-Based Plan for Prestigious Boston High School

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Last week's federal court decision upholding Boston's use of race in admitting students to its most elite public schools further muddied an already cloudy area of education law, experts say.

A 9th grader sued last year alleging that she was passed over for admission to the prestigious Boston Latin School in favor of less qualified applicants because she is white. The case hinged on a question the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address directly: whether the educational value of classroom diversity justifies race-conscious policies in public K-12 schools.

U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Tauro ruled last week that it does. To the delight of Boston officials, he upheld a race-conscious admissions process that the district had already revised in response to an earlier court challenge.

"More than any other public institution," the judge wrote in his May 28 decision, "the public secondary schools awaken our children to cultural values and practices of civility that lead to tolerance and understanding of divergent political, religious, and social convictions."

Michael C. McLaughlin, the lawyer representing plaintiff Sarah Wessmann, vowed to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which is based in Boston.

On behalf of his daughter, Julia, Mr. McLaughlin filed a similar suit in 1995 challenging the district's policy of reserving 35 percent of seats at Boston Latin School for blacks and Hispanics. Another federal judge dismissed the case the following year after the district agreed to admit the girl and drop the quota.

Va. Court Differs

Judge Tauro's ruling directly contradicts a recent decision in an Arlington, Va., case involving a similar race-conscious policy for allotting magnet school seats. In that April 14 ruling, U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. held that promoting diversity did not justify "racial discrimination" in admissions. The ruling is now on appeal in the 4th Circuit.

The appeals of the divergent rulings raise the possibility that the federal appellate courts will issue opposite rulings. That scenario would increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court might take up the issue, legal experts said last week.

A ruling by the high court could clarify an issue that is of growing interest around the country, as challenges to race-based procedures at public schools proliferate.

Under the Boston policy upheld last week, applicants to the district's three academically selective "exam schools" are ranked in order of their grades and performance on an entrance exam. Half the available seats are filled with the top-ranking students, regardless of race or ethnic group. The rest are then distributed based on the representation of various minority groups in the pool of applicants.

The plaintiffs claimed the revised system amounts to unconstitutional discrimination. But Judge Tauro called it an "achievement driven" policy that "provides flexible guidelines to ensure academic excellence in a diverse setting."

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Page 7

Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as U.S. Judge Upholds Race-Based Plan for Prestigious Boston High School
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