BBA Joins ADL in Support of Equity in Access to Boston’s Prestigious Exam Schools

Amicus Brief in Federal Case Is in Keeping with BBA’s Commitment to Diversity in Education

[This post has been updated to reflect a District Court decision on April 15 on the case at hand. See the passage in red below.]

The BBA has long had a commitment to diversity and equity in education, dating back at least as far as our 1975 report, Desegregation: The Boston Orders and Their Origin, which promoted public understanding of Judge Garrity’s controversial busing plan.

More recently, we have been active as amici in litigation on these issues, opposing the abolition of race-conscious admissions policies — especially at law schools — as a threat to efforts to diversify the legal profession, and twice arguing that diversity within the legal profession cannot be achieved without a “pipeline” that requires diverse representation at both undergraduate institutions and law schools. (And, of course, our work in support of equal opportunity for all students extends beyond the courtroom as well, including our Summer Jobs and Financial Literacy programs for high-schoolers and our Service Innovation Project to protect the rights of students at all levels in discipline cases.)

Bringing that legal focus back to Boston, the BBA signed onto an amicus brief by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in support of the Boston Public Schools’ one-year policy for admission to its three exam-based high schools. Several other groups with an interest in ameliorating long-standing educational disparities also joined the brief, which argues that the school system has a compelling interest in advancing diversity of all kinds at the exam schools. The underlying litigation was filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts this past February on behalf of several families of potential applicants who they claim would be adversely affected by the switch to this interim policy.

Boston’s School Committee had been criticized over admission policies for the highly-selective schools that have led to the acceptance of students who are significantly less diverse—on racial/ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic measures—than its enrollment as a whole. This year, the district chose to drop the exam component because of the pandemic, settling instead on a temporary approach that still focuses on grades, setting aside 20% of seats to be filled solely on that basis, but also seeks to ensure greater diversity by using geography as well to help fill the remaining 80% — drawing the top students from each ZIP code, in numbers commensurate with the student population in each area.

The ADL’s brief, prepared by attorneys with Cooley LLP‘s Boston and Washington, DC, offices, argues that the policy—which is in place to govern admissions for the 2021-22 school year only —advances the exam schools’ mandate “to foster and maintain a diverse student body so that students have access to the myriad, well-established educational benefits of diversity,” and that it ultimately helps the City of Boston compete in a global marketplace where “having more diverse, well-credentialed graduates is an essential competitive advantage.”

“The Exam Schools are a crucial part of the pipeline by which promising and diverse students in Boston enter the local talent pool,” the brief states. “Students from underrepresented communities around the City are missing out on significant opportunities and advantages,” noting, for example, that “a student from West Roxbury was approximately five times more likely than a student from East Boston to gain admission.” By addressing such on-going disparities head-on, the one-year policy will help level the playing field.

“The BBA has long taken an interest in promoting equity and equal opportunity for students in New England’s largest school district and beyond,” said BBA President Martin F. Murphy, “from publishing a 1975 report that explained court-ordered desegregation to the public, to filing a series of amicus briefs over the past 20 years in defense of the principle that society is best served when the benefits of access to a quality education are shared equally, and when students are best prepared for success by learning in a diverse environment. We are proud to join the ADL and others in this brief.”

The other amici joining the brief include Amplify Latinx, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the Boston Celtics, the Boston Red Sox, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social ActionKing Boston, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, and Boston-based cybersecurity firm Rapid7. In addition, a number of civil-rights groups, represented by Lawyers for Civil RightsSidley Austin LLP, and Greater Boston Legal Services, successfully moved to join as intervenors in the case, to offer the court a broader perspective on the issues presented.

A hearing in the case—Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp. v. The School Committee of the City of Boston et al.was held on April 6, with District Judge G. William Young hearing from counsel for the plaintiffs, the defendants, and the intervenors. Arguments mostly centered on what level of judicial review is called for in the case. Judge Young pledged to deliver at least a preliminary ruling as soon as possible, in light of the schools’ need to notify applicants of their admission decisions.

We’ll report back once a ruling is issued.

UPDATE: Just after this post was published on April 15, Judge Young released his decision, ruling in favor of the Boston Public Schools and rejecting a challenge to their one-year admissions policy for Boston’s exam schools. 

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association