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Federal Court Tells Boston to Cease Race-Based Admissions

By Elizabeth Mehren
Los Angeles Times

The public high school where Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Leonard Bernstein all studied was ordered Thursday to dismantle its two-year old race-based admissions policy.

The ruling by a federal appeals court here held that Boston Latin School, the country's oldest public school, no longer could maintain admission standards that promote minority attendance. Founded in 1635, Boston Latin is the most prestigious of the city's three exam schools, and one of only a handful of such public schools in the country.

The court, in overturning a judge's decision, acknowledged that attaining racial balance at Boston Latin was a difficult task, and expressed admiration for the motives of the Boston School Committee, which oversees the city's educational system motives. But, said the court, "Noble ends cannot justify the deployment of constitutionally impermissible means."

The case was brought on behalf of Sarah Wessmann, a Boston ninth-grader who complained that she was denied entrance to the school in favor of less-qualified minority students. School Superintendent Thomas Payzant said Boston Latin immediately would implement the court's order to admit Wessmann, who is white.

But Payzant said in an interview that it would take some time to revise the entrance policy that was introduced two years ago. With the current admission procedure deemed unconstitutional, Payzant said he was uncertain whether the school committee would launch an appeal.

Payzant staunchly defended Boston Latin's admissions procedure, in which half the 2,300 students are selected solely on entrance exams, scores, and grades, and admissions for the remaining half are weighted by race. Under the current policy, for instance, if 20 percent of the remaining applicants are black, 20 percent of those admitted must be black.