School plans tweak status quo, but bold change is needed

Michael D. O'Neill smiled as Boston School Committee members and Superintendent Carol Johnson (right) applaud him after he was elected as the new chairman Jan. 7, 2013.
Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Michael D. O'Neill smiled as Boston School Committee members and Superintendent Carol Johnson (right) applaud him after he was elected as the new chairman Jan. 7, 2013.

What began last January with Mayor Menino’s dramatic call for Boston students to be given seats in schools close to their homes, with meaningful alternatives for those in areas with underperforming schools, has morphed into something more like an effort to improve the current system of wide geographic zones, multiple choices, and luck of the draw. There’s nothing wrong with giving parents a little more control, and a slightly higher chance of having their son or daughter attend a school with better-than-average performance on statewide MCAS exams, as would all three of the proposals produced at the behest of the Mayors External Advisory Committee on School Choice. But none would transform the system. Menino should ask the committee to give him at least one bolder option.

All of the three proposals to come out of the advisory committee would be better than the current system, in which students from the same neighborhoods crisscross the city to widely differing places, based largely on the luck of the lottery. But each of the replacement proposals would still have the complicated lottery system and would only reduce the average distance students travel from 1.8 miles to about 1.1 miles. None would even offer much of a reduction of the system’s $80 million annual transportation bill.

The mayor, who once promised that a new assignment process would replace long, expensive bus trips with “school communities’’ that draw on the advantages of nearby neighborhood libraries, community centers, and afterschool programs, should hold out for a plan that would do just that. Having laid the groundwork for transformative change, Menino shouldn’t settle for half-step improvements.


The committee, comprised of 27 community leaders and educators, clearly took its responsibilities seriously. It sought to address the specific concerns of parents currently in the system, many of whom hope their children can stay in the schools to which they’re already assigned — a reasonable request — but also that any younger brothers and sisters should be guaranteed slots in the same schools, even if they’re far from their homes.

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Those parents of current students, however, aren’t the only people affected by the school-assignment plan. Each year, many young families flee the city out of fear of the vagaries of the lottery system, and many would stay if they could be promised a spot in the school nearest their homes. Further, having most of the children in a given neighborhood attend the same school helps to bind communities together and increase parental involvement in the schools. Such parents would then be a strong force for accountability of teachers and principals. Local businesses could also pitch in, knowing that their customers are part of the same school communities. And if the city’s educational leadership is concerned about keeping brothers and sisters together in the same schools, a neighborhood-based assignment plan would keep families together with far less difficulty than through a lottery-based system.

The first option forwarded to the mayor by the advisory committee would split the city into 10 zones and let parents chose from up to 14 schools, with entry to the most popular schools depending at least in part on the student’s lottery number. The other two options are so-called home-based models that use a child’s address as a starting point and offer a student at least six or nine schools, respectively, from which to choose.

Each of the three plans does increase the likelihood that a student will receive one of his or her top three choices. But families would still need to list choices and enter the lottery — a far cry from the simplicity of attending the school closest to one’s home. The school department has not released data on how much, if any, savings on transportation will be realized from the new plans. But the decision to allow siblings entering the system to attend schools where their brothers and sisters are now enrolled — no matter how far from their homes — means that busing costs could actually rise over the next five years.

These options were favored by the committee because they gave students the greatest possible chance of attending a school where at least half of the students score at the proficient level or above on the state MCAS exam. Under the current model, nearly 20 percent of the city’s students have a chance to attend such a school. Under the new proposals, a student’s chance of attending one of these higher-performing schools would bump up slightly to between 22 and 25 percent.


Obviously, getting into a high-performing school is important to most parents, and the committee was flooded with concerns that a neighborhood-based system would unfairly disadvantage students in areas with higher numbers of low-performing schools. As valid as these concerns may be, they don’t reflect the increasingly dynamic nature of the city’s schools. Today’s high-performing schools may be merely average in just a year or two. Meanwhile, many low-performing schools are just a strong principal and excellent afterschool program away from significant improvement. For instance, the Orchard Gardens K-8 school in Roxbury scraped bottom academically as recently as 2009, but has risen to nearer the top under new leadership. The Trotter Elementary School in Roxbury is an example of a school that has seesawed dramatically in its test scores, and is again making great strides under strong school leaders.

The advisory committee’s decision to put so much emphasis on current school ratings weakened this process from the start. It reflected the understandable, but increasingly outmoded, concern that students will be forced to attend poorer schools simply because of where they live. But at a time when all Boston students have potential access to charter schools and citywide schools, when most minority students can apply to go to suburban systems through the Metco program, and when all students in chronically underperforming schools have a right to slots in higher-performing schools via the federal No Child Left Behind law, fears of students being left without adequate options shouldn’t drive the entire process.

The three plans recommended by the mayor’s advisory committee reflect the enormous time and energy spent on gathering and analyzing data by the school department and the committee members. They spared no effort when soliciting public input. The problem is that so much of that energy was spent trying to give each family an equal shot at a limited resource — good schools — instead of creating an assignment system that, in itself, encourages the organic growth of good schools in every neighborhood.

Boston’s kids deserve better than a 1-in-4 chance of going to a decent school. The new assignment process should be a spur to improvement, not a tortured exercise in map-drawing. The time is ripe for a major step, not a marginal improvement.