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editorial

School assignment proposal shows progress, merits support

The school-assignment plan that emerged from the mayor’s 27-member advisory committee represents a commitment to a more rational system of matching students and schools. It seeks to balance two important goals — providing families with more options closer to their homes, while ensuring that every child has a decent shot at a good-quality school. The School Committee, which will consider the plan today, should accept it as a step forward — not a bold or transformative one, but one that puts the system on a clear path to improvement.

The plan would give families the choice of at least six schools located relatively near their homes. If there are enough “high-performing” schools nearby, parents might not get more than six choices. Parents in neighborhoods with fewer good schools would get more choices, so that all families would have a fair shot at a school judged to be high-performing. Ultimately, many families wouldn’t get their first choices, and the process of determining where their children end up would be complicated. There would still be too much busing, and some parents may not get assignments early enough to make a decision whether to apply to private schools or move out of the city.

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By those important standards, the plan is a disappointment. But in comparison to the current system, in which parents confront a dizzying array of options and far too many students end up being bused long distances, the new plan is a logical advancement. Many supporters of the Boston schools yearn for a plan that would, as its starting point, guarantee children a slot in the school nearest their homes. But until a greater number of schools are considered desirable, and the process by which the weak ones become stronger is more firmly established, many parents will refuse such a plan as unfair.

The advisory committee’s plan implicitly acknowledges that building a higher-quality school system will take more time and that, until more schools are judged to be effective, many parents will resist assignment plans that limit their choices. Over time, the emergence of higher numbers of high-quality schools, and the realization that poor schools can be turned around quickly, should lessen that resistance. Then, the School Committee can restrict the number of options, placing more and more children in good schools near their homes. By giving parents choices based on where they live, the advisory committee’s plan anticipates a day not too far in the future when most kids will be attending the school closest to their home; on that basis alone, it’s a vast improvement.

The School Committee should be clear that hastening that timeframe is an important aim. Having students attend the schools closest to their homes would enhance Boston’s sense of community and turn nearby businesses and civic groups into potential sources of support and advocacy. By linking schools to area libraries and community centers, the city can ensure that learning continues well after the last school bell has rung. Such connections are far more easily achieved if students live near where they learn and participate in after-school activities. Plus, it would save a lot of money on transportation — funds that can be plowed back into the educational system.

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Unfortunately, the advisory committee determined that its proposal would save only about $2 million of the $85 million annual transportation budget. That suggests that many students would still be assigned to schools far from their homes. The committee decided not only to allow today’s students to stay in their current schools — a reasonable request — but to offer those same schools to any younger brothers or sisters entering the system, thereby perpetuating the weaknesses of the current assignment plan. On this issue, at least, the advisory committee should have showed more backbone.

But the committee — which examined data ranging from the court-ordered busing maps of the 1970s to today’s MCAS scores — also achieved some important breakthroughs. Members stress the need for parents to receive timely and transparent information about the quality of the choices on their list. One especially innovative recommendation encourages education-minded parents to join together in compacts to send their children to an underchosen school.

The plan anticipates a day when most kids will be attending the school closest to their home.

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That reflects Boston’s maturing political values and its eagerness to search for new solutions to old problems. The advisory panel — a truly diverse group of academics, educators, and community leaders — managed to reach a sensible agreement despite the divergent views of its members. So should the rest of us.

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