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AG Nessel Joins Court Brief in Support of Equity in School Admissions

LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has joined a coalition of 19 attorneys general, co-led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in support of the School District of Philadelphia against a challenge to its race-neutral admissions plan for four of its selective high schools, which sought to reduce barriers to access for students of all geographic, social, and racial backgrounds.  

The amicus brief – filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Sargent v. School District of Philadelphia – argues against the claim that Philadelphia intentionally discriminated against white and Asian-American applicants in revising its admissions plan for the 2022-2023 school year, and thereby violated the Equal Protection Clause. In its revised plan, Philadelphia eliminated standardized testing requirements for admission at the City’s “criteria-based” schools in favor of a race-neutral, lottery-based process for allocating seats to students whose academic achievements qualified them for admission. The plan included a built-in preference at four of the schools for academically qualified students from zip codes that had previously sent the lowest percentage of students to these schools.  

The lower court refused to grant the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction blocking the policy change shortly before the school year began, and the case is now on appeal.  

"The language of the School District of Philadelphia's race-neutral policy in no way does what the plaintiffs’ lawsuit indicates it does," said Nessel. "What the policy actually does is make clear that the district will look at whether the number of African American and Hispanic students who meet the requirements to attend its criteria-based schools is increasing, thereby alerting the district that its efforts to address systemic racism are succeeding. All students deserve the chance to develop into their full academic potential. That cannot be achieved if they are denied a level educational playing field. The School District of Philadelphia's new admissions plan is a plan whose time has come. I stand firmly with my colleagues in supporting it."

The attorneys general argue in the brief that longstanding Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedents reject the idea that race-neutral policies are subject to strict scrutiny simply because policymakers aimed in part to remove barriers to access that may disproportionately affect people of particular racial backgrounds—as well as various socioeconomic, geographic, or other backgrounds. The coalition argues that this theory would, if adopted, hinder state and local policymakers’ ability to ensure that government policies serve their residents equitably and effectively, as it would subject policymakers to strict scrutiny whenever they are aware of the potential demographic consequences of race-neutral policy choices and work to reduce inequities in policies’ impact across demographically identifiable groups. The coalition also argues that acceptance of such a theory has the potential to hinder effective policymaking in other realms beyond education, such as public health.  

To read the full amicus brief, click here

Joining AG Nessel, AG Healey, and AG Shapiro in the brief are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Delaware, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington. 

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