2020 | Schools

MCPS sued over magnet school admissions

Group says new processes discriminate against Asian students

A Montgomery County nonprofit this week filed a federal lawsuit against the local school district, alleging it discriminates against Asian students when making admissions decisions for middle school magnet programs.

In the 83-page complaint, the Association for Education Fairness — a local organization of mostly Asian parents — argues that recent changes to the admissions process for MCPS’ four middle school magnet programs were “targeted to reduce the percentage of Asian-American students who enroll … with the ultimate goal of racially balancing these schools according to the racial demographics of Montgomery County.”

The group argues that the changes violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which requires jurisdictions to treat all individuals in similar circumstances equally.

MCPS had not provided a comment in response to the lawsuit as of 5 p.m. Thursday.

A report to the school board in 2016 found disparities in enrollment and acceptance rates at the four magnet (gifted and talented) programs, with white and Asian students admitted at greater rates than their peers.

In the 2013-14 school year, the programs’ enrollment was 47% white, 34% Asian, 8% Black and 4% Hispanic, according to the report.

In response, the consultants who conducted the report recommended a slate of changes to the admissions process, including implementing a new consideration: how many students from their home schools are admitted to special programs.

Students are considered less favorably for a seat if they have 20 or more gifted classmates at their home schools. District officials have said students at a school with a large population of advanced students are better suited to work together there, whereas advanced students who don’t have similarly skilled classmates at their school have a greater need for a magnet program.

The report also recommended considering non-cognitive measures in admissions decisions, including “motivation and persistence.” Also, rather than having parents initiate the selection process, MCPS began universal screening for admission.

The Association for Education Fairness wrote in its lawsuit that, while Black and Hispanic students have “benefited from the changes,” Asian students have lost “more than a fifth of the seats at each program” since the changes took effect in 2017.

The group asks the federal court to issue a permanent injunction, prohibiting MCPS from continuing to use the changed admissions processes.

In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into allegations similar to the ones raised in this week’s lawsuit.

The Washington Post reported at the time that federal officials received 10 complaints raising concerns about the magnet program.

The Office of Civil Rights website lists the investigation as still open. A spokesperson declined to comment on Thursday afternoon.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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