White student, 15, wins race-based admissions suit Boston Latin to admit girl after first U.S. appeal on quotas in public schools


In the first federal appeals court ruling on racial preferences in public school admissions, a three-judge panel in Boston yesterday struck down the affirmative-action policy at Boston Latin School, the city's most prestigious public high school.

The challenge to Boston Latin, brought by Henry Robert Wessman, the father of a white student who was not admitted, moves the charged debate over affirmative action in education from the college and professional school level down to the public school systems.

Two years ago, in a case involving the University of Texas law school, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred the use of race in university admissions.

But the constitutionality of racial preferences in admissions to prestigious public high schools is more complicated -- and more amorphous -- since so many districts, like Boston, have been under court order to desegregate. Indeed, many districts have created magnet schools specifically to promote integration.

Although yesterday's ruling is binding only on Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico, it is likely to draw intense interest in many school districts that are race-conscious in admissions to their most competitive schools. While most school districts have abandoned strict racial quotas, many magnet schools still consider race in their admission decisions.

Boston Latin selects half its students solely on entrance examination scores and grades, and admissions for the other half are weighted by race, so that if 27 percent of the remaining qualified applicants, those from the top half of their class, are African-American, 27 percent of those admitted must be African-American.

In yesterday's 2-to-1 decision overturning a May ruling by the district court upholding that policy, Judge Bruce Selya of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Boston Latin to admit 15-year-old Sarah Wessman, a white student who complained that she had been illegally denied admission in favor of less qualified minorities. Sarah ranked 91st among the applicants for the 1997 ninth-grade class.

"This puts a further stake in the heart of the diversity rationale," said Terence Pell, senior counsel at the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, which brought the Texas case. "People might have thought that if the diversity rationale would survive at all it would be in the elementary and secondary school context, but the court said, no."

Dr. Elizabeth Reilinger, chair of the Boston School Committee, said that the committee would comply with the decision -- and discuss whether to appeal the decision or change its policy.

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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