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Judge dismisses discrimination suit over Montgomery’s magnet schools

A federal lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian American students in Montgomery County Schools magnet program admissions has been dismissed. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A lawsuit alleging Maryland’s largest school district discriminated against its Asian American students after it changed its magnet program admissions process has been dismissed by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis concluded in the dismissal last week that the complaint failed to show that Montgomery County Public Schools’ revision to its admissions process at the start of the pandemic “disparately impacts Asian American students or had been implemented with discriminatory intent.”

Two years ago, the Association for Education Fairness, a parent group, filed complaints against the school system arguing that it unlawfully used race as a factor in admissions in its efforts to increase racial diversity in magnet programs with revisions made before the 2018 school year.

The school system revised its policies again during the pandemic, before the 2021-2022 school year, to shift to an admissions model that could be done virtually to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The parent group updated its legal complaints against the system and argued the new model continued to disadvantage Asian American students. They pointed to data that showed 35 percent of Asian American students countywide achieved the “highest level” on the Maryland’s state assessment, yet only 24 percent of those students were placed in the magnet programs, according to the legal filings.

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As part of the dismissal the judge noted that Asian American students maintained a “strong representation in the magnet programs relative to their composition in the applicant pool.” The judge also noted there was little evidence the latest admissions process was designed to favor one racial group over the other.

“We are disappointed in the outcome and we will be discussing next steps with our client in the coming days,” said Christopher Kieser, one of the attorneys for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the group of Asian American parents who filed complaints.

Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Chris Cram said the school system was pleased with the federal district court’s decision to uphold the current admissions process and it “correctly found” the school system followed the law.

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The school system changed its admissions process following a 2016 report that found stark disparities in enrollment and acceptance rates, with White and Asian students faring better than their Black and Hispanic classmates.

The school system stopped relying on parent-initiated applications for magnet schools and instead universally screened its fifth-graders. It reviewed each students’ report card grades and standardized test scores, and invited half of the students to take a cognitive abilities test — an in-person written assessment that measured students’ skills.

The revised process also took into consideration applicants’ peer groups at their home schools. The idea is that students who have a large number of other gifted classmates at their home schools could come together for advanced classes there, but gifted students without a large gifted peer group at their home school may need to be placed in a magnet program.

Parents who filed the legal complaints argued the home school peer group consideration disadvantaged Asian students from receiving magnet school seats since they were clustered in a “relatively small number” of Montgomery’s elementary schools.

At the time, the 2018 enrollment figures for Black and Hispanic/Latino students remained the same, according to the opinion. In the next year, schools were designated as “low-poverty, moderate-poverty, or high-poverty”; their scores were compared to other students that reflected the same socioeconomic status, a move that hurt Asian American students, parents alleged.

Asian American student enrollment did decline over those years, but the number of Asian American students participating in magnet programs “always outpaced the percentage representation of Asian Americans in MCPS countywide,” the judge wrote in last week’s ruling.

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After the pandemic began in 2020, the school system began using a lottery selection system instead because in-person testing was unable to be conducted. Any student who received an “A” in relevant courses, read above a fourth-grade level and received above a certain score on state reading and math assessments was placed in the lottery pool. Students are picked from the pool until the magnet class reaches its capacity.

Montgomery County Public Schools announced in 2021 that process would be used for the foreseeable future.

In the ruling dismissing the suit, Xinis wrote that the admissions plan rolled out after the pandemic began was a “facially neutral admissions process that MCPS has applied evenhandedly.”

The ruling follows another high-profile admissions case in the Washington area that reached the Supreme Court. In that case, Fairfax County Schools officials were sued after revising admissions policies for prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology that administrators said opened the magnet program to a wider socioeconomic range of students. Opponents claimed the new policy discriminated against Asian American applicants. In April, the Supreme Court ruled the admissions process could stay in place as a legal battle continues.