Although an amended version of this policy was approved in July, the legal challenge continued. But a ruling last week by a federal district court judge on the parents’ lawsuit dismissed their claims and rebuked one of the core arguments made by the plaintiffs, who essentially filed a lawsuit to maintain the status quo. It’s still a relevant point now: Complainants have claimed that the original one-year proposal violated equal protections – in other words, discriminated against them. But Judge William Young confirmed, for the second time, the city’s plan to be race neutral. In other words, the old admissions process was not fair and equitable, as the applicants claimed.
The decision, narrow as it is, is also expected to have implications for the mayoral campaign. Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu, the last two mayoral contenders, make similar but cautious comments positions on the right side of the exam school question. Still the court ruling is a great victory for the school district, as it validates the general direction the city has taken in considering changes regardless of race. The decision should free the next mayor to commit to bold and assertive changes in the exam schools admissions process.
An evolution of admissions for the three schools has been in preparation for a long time. But this latest iteration of proposals began in the wake of the pandemic, and a temporary plan was approved at the school board meeting almost a year ago which was memorable not only for the ensuing policy change but also because of what a few school board members were saying or were texting backstage.
The current plan will ensure that more children from disadvantaged schools and backgrounds have a better chance of being admitted to the three highly selective schools. It uses census tracts to allocate seats to the three schools. It will include a new entrance exam which will represent 30 percent of a composite score, with grades constituting the remaining 70 percent. Due to the pandemic, however, this test will also be suspended for one year for those who wish to enter for the fall of 2022. At the school committee meeting scheduled for Tuesday, the district plans to present a simulation of the new policy of admission, as questions have swirled around how exactly this will work.
Essaibi George and Wu both support keeping an exam in the admissions process, but more aligned with the BPS curriculum (which was not the case with the exam used previously). Wu supports the use of test scores and marks and “targeted criteria such as census tract data to account for students’ socio-economic backgrounds.” Essaibi George believes that the exam “should be weighted at 50 percent, the overall average also being weighted at 50 percent”.
Both candidates make a point that Young made clear in his decision – that the rest of the schools in the district deserve the attention and investment in exam schools. Essaibi George has publicly stated that she is not sure whether the use of postal codes, in practice, produces the diversity results sought in exam schools. The focus should be on removing obstacles “before and during the test,” she said via a spokesperson. These include providing tutoring vouchers for low-income students and increasing accessibility by hosting multilingual briefings so that there are more black and brown students taking the test.
It is true that the city spends a disproportionate amount of time discussing the three highly selective institutions, but that is only because the reforms have been so difficult to implement and the schools are so resistant to change. One of the reasons for this is that the constituency that defends the status quo in exam schools is much louder than the deprived constituency affected by poor quality in the rest of the schools.
But the question of the exam school deserves urgent attention, and more than a timid stance, precisely because so many issues are at stake. Young’s decision – which included wordy but crisp thinking delivered via a note. footer, where he called racism “the syphilis of American public discourse and civic engagement.” It’s embarrassing, ugly, deeply humiliating, oppressive and infuriating, the five of us. The next mayor must take a bold stand that takes Young’s words to heart.