By Jim Smith
BOSTON — In a historic vote last Wednesday night, the Boston School Committee voted unanimously to implement in September 2000 a race-neutral admissions policy that sets aside 50 percent of seats for students living close enough to walk to school.
The vote to accept superintendent Thomas Payzant’s assignment plan came after a July decision by the committee to consider a race-neutral plan rather than enter into a costly legal battle with Ann Walsh of Dorchester and her group, Boston’s Children First.
As reported in the Echo two months ago, BCF filed a complaint in federal court on June 21 against the Boston Public Schools, charging that the current school-assignment plan is unconstitutional because it discriminates against white students who want to attend public schools in their neighborhood.
Walsh, whose parents are from Counties Leitrim and Galway, is hoping to bring an end to a tumultuous era in the city’s history that began 25 years ago when the late federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered children bused across the city in order to achieve racial desegregation.
Garrity, whose great-grandfather came to America from County Sligo in 1849, died in September at the age of 79.
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Although the BCF suit and last Wednesday’s vote signal an apparent end to forced busing and a return to neighborhood schools, the controversial Garrity desegregation program began to unravel in August 1995 when another Irish American, attorney Michael McLaughlin, challenged the constitutionality of the Boston exam schools’ racially-based admission policies.
McLaughlin argued before Judge Garrity that his 13-year-old daughter, Julia, had been unfairly denied entrance into Boston Latin School’s seventh grade because she is white. She had scored better than 103 blacks and Hispanics who were admitted to the prestigious school.
In a surprising development during pre-trial hearings in April 1996, Judge Garrity stated that there was a strong "likelihood" that McLaughlin would prevail and that racial quotas would ultimately be deemed unconstitutional.
In August 1996 Garrity ruled that Julia McLaughlin could enter Boston Latin, one of the three public schools in the city requiring entrance examinations, pending the outcome of the trial. In November of that year Garrity dismissed the suit after the school committee agreed to let McLaughlin stay at Latin.
A year later, McLaughlin represented Sarah Wessman, a Dorchester ninth grader and friend of Julia. She asserted that she was unfairly denied entrance to Boston Latin under the new admissions policies, which still gave some preference to minority applicants. Wessman had scored better than 10 black, Asian and Hispanic students.
After a 13-day trial in January 1998, federal judge Joseph Tauro ruled against Wessman and for the school committee. But in November 1998 the federal appeals court in Boston overturned that decision and ruled that the exam school admission policy was unconstitutional.
Buttressed by those rulings and a growing support for the concept of neighborhood schools, Walsh’s group filed its suit. BCF wants the federal court to oversee the dismantling of race-based admission policies in all of the city’s public schools.
Although pleased with last week’s vote, Walsh fears that a dismissal of the suit by federal judge Nancy Gartner, an action now sought by the school department, might lead to some tampering and foot-dragging by school officials, some of whom are only grudgingly supportive of the proposed changes.
"There needs to be a lot of energy and creativity involved in this process to make it work," Walsh said Sunday. "I’m a little suspicious about some of the details in the plan that they’ve put forth, but overall it’s an important step in the direction of neighborhood schools and quality education for all the children of this city."
When the vote was taken last Wednesday night, a group of angry black parents and community activists stood in protest in front of the committee singing "We Shall Overcome." Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said that his organization may join with others in taking court action to try to overturn the new assignment policy.
Walsh, however, said that the vast majority of minority parents in the city favor neighborhood schools. "We got over 10,000 signatures in a five-week period in support of what we’re trying to accomplish, and quite a bit of that support is from within the minority community," she said.
Judge Gartner is expected to rule in the coming weeks on the school department’s motion to have the case dismissed based upon its assurances that change is at hand.