Julia McLaughlin was rejected by the Boston Latin School, the nation's oldest state high school and one of its best, while 103 black and Hispanic applicants who scored lower on the entrance exam were admitted because the school reserves a third of places for minority students.
A federal judge now says that quota policy appears to violate the US Constitution's guarantee of equal treatment for all citizens. Judge W Arthur Garrity called Miss McLaughlin's case "potentially trailblazing," and said he probably will order her admitted to the school.
Judge Garrity's decision could have a dramatic effect on districts nationwide where quotas have been used to balance racial composition in the classroom.
"It's a very important case," Miss McLaughlin's father, Michael, an attorney, said. "She deserves to be there like a lot of kids deserve to be there. "
The city's school board argued that abandoning the quotas would mean a return to racial segregation that existed before 1974, when federal judges ordered inner-city schools like Boston to be racially desegregated. Boston Latin reserves 850 of its 2,500 places for black and Hispanic students; without the quota, school administrators say, only 350 would get in.
Affirmative action programs that take race and sex into account in admissions or hiring have come under fire everywhere. The US Supreme Court last year said the federal government's policy of hiring minority-owned companies for public contracts, for example, violated the constitutional right to equal protection for whites. The University of California last summer dropped its practice of giving preference to minority applicants. And a federal appeals court last month said the special treatment given minority applicants to the University of Texas law school was illegal.
The McLaughlin case is the first to reconsider quotas in the state schools. City officials already have said they would look for other ways besides a quota of ensuring that minorities have equal access to the schools.
"As a parent, you have to be thrilled, and I'm thrilled . . . It's the beginning of a vindication of our position," Mr McLaughlin said.