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Parents sue the Philly School District over its magnet admissions policy, alleging racial discrimination

The new policy is unconstitutional because it applies "different admissions standards for plaintiffs’ children based on their race,” a lawsuit filed by three Philadelphia parents says.

Three parents have sued the Philadelphia School District over its special-admissions policy, alleging racial discrimination.
Three parents have sued the Philadelphia School District over its special-admissions policy, alleging racial discrimination.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Three parents have sued the Philadelphia School District over its overhauled special-admissions policy, saying it has adopted a “blatantly unconstitutional, race-based” system in the name of antiracism and equity.

The lawsuit, filed this month in federal court by three Philadelphia parents whose children did not gain admission to the magnet high schools of their choice, despite qualifying academically, seeks to tear up the policy, prohibit the district from using “racially discriminatory criteria” for magnet school admissions, and award damages to the three plaintiffs and others who might have been damaged by the “gerrymandered lottery” policy.

It names Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., members of the school board, and two Hite cabinet members who conceived and implemented the policy. Among the lawyers representing the plaintiffs is one from America First Legal, an organization formed by Stephen Miller and Mark Meadows, former aides to President Donald Trump.

Beginning this fall, Philadelphia made seismic changes to its admissions policy, shifting from a system where principals had some say over who made the cut at the district’s 37 special-admissions schools to a computer-based lottery for all who qualified. For five top magnet schools, the district gave preference to students who met academic standards and live in certain zip codes typically underrepresented at such schools.

Critics say the process was deeply flawed, penalizing some students it was meant to help and shutting others out completely.

Parents Sherice Sargent, Fallon Girini, and Michele Sheridan, who filed the lawsuit, say their students are among that group. Sargent’s daughter, an eighth grader at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, was denied entrance to Carver’s high school, despite stellar grades and earlier promises from district officials that students who performed well at Carver’s middle school could stay through high school graduation.

Girini’s and Sheridan’s children attend Christopher Columbus Charter School, have strong grades and attendance, and were denied admissions to Academy at Palumbo, their desired high school. Sargent’s child is Black, Girini’s is white, and Sheridan’s is biracial.

Lawyers for the parents argue the district changed from a “race-neutral process to a racially discriminatory process” despite a majority of students from special-admissions schools identifying as Black or Latino and no school having a white majority.

“The school district believed some select schools, in particular a science and technology school, had an underrepresentation of non-Black students (in other words ‘too Black’) and that non-Black and non-Latino students were ‘overrepresented’ in other schools (in other words ‘not Black enough’),” the suit says.

The district is violating the Pennsylvania Constitution’s equal protection clause “by applying different admissions standards for plaintiffs’ children based on their race,” according to the lawsuit.

Lawyers seek to certify the lawsuit as class action, encompassing any students and parents who applied for admission to a criteria-based school and were denied entry “because of the school district’s racially discriminatory admissions standards” or anyone who might do so in the future.

Data show that students of color have a tougher time getting into the city’s top magnets, though numbers vary from school to school.

Under the new policy, more Black and brown students qualified for special-admissions schools in this admissions cycle, and more qualified students applied to at least one such school. But results are still mixed, especially at the district’s top magnets: Just 2% of Black and 3% of Latino eighth graders citywide met the bar for Masterman entry, and 8% of Black and Latino students met Central’s requirements.

Gene Hamilton, America First Legal’s general counsel, and one of the lawyers representing the Philadelphia parents, said in a statement the district and its policy both violate the Constitution, but “it tells students that hard work and determination are no longer sufficient for success without considerations of race and ethnicity. We cannot and will not stand for such a cynical and unlawful encroachment on equal opportunity for our next generation of leaders.”

School district officials did not immediately return a request for comment.