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Lawrence Harmon

For Boston’s students, assignment plans are a lost opportunity

AFTER A YEAR of arduous meetings and sifting through reams of data, Mayor Menino’s advisory committee is slated on Monday to recommend a new student assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. Unfortunately, none of the four options under consideration is likely to lead to quick or dramatic changes to the current system that launches thousands of students across the city in yellow school buses for no educational purpose.

It might have turned out differently had Menino been well enough throughout the fall to keep tabs on the committee’s progress. But the mayor was flat on his back in the hospital suffering from infections and other maladies while the future of the city’s school system was being reshaped. Menino appears to be regaining his health. But his school assignment options still look peaked.

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The committee worked extraordinarily hard, hosting about 70 public meetings. But only a handful of the original 27 members actually embraced Menino’s original mandate to design an assignment plan that “puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes.’’ That came through sharply in a Jan. 31 letter from advisory committee member Bill Walczak, the former head of Carney Hospital, urging his colleagues to embrace this “once in a generation opportunity.” The range of options before the committee, warned Walczak, “are only an incremental improvement over the current system’’ that buses children across three wide geographic zones.

The committee is likely to settle on one of two so-called “home-based’’ plans. Home-based A would offer students at least six choices — and possibly many more — based on a complicated algorithm that factors in distance from home, school capacity, and standardized test scores. Home-based B would offer at least nine choices. Like now, there is no guarantee of receiving a top choice.

Calling school assignment plans “home-based’’ is like attaching the homestyle label to a can of soup. It’s not homemade, i.e. a true neighborhood school where your address determines your assignment. But it contains sufficient ingredients to persuade the public to buy it. And what about truth in advertising? Menino promised a “radically different’’ assignment plan at his 2012 State of the City address. Instead, he is on the verge of delivering a marginally different one.

Walczak, School Committee member Mary Tamer, Suffolk University vice president John Nucci, and a few other panelists remained true to the original vision of parents rallying around their neighborhood schools, enlisting the aid of local community groups, and raising quality across the system. But most members focused instead on “equity’’ issues. Frantic efforts followed to create a range of choices for families that include high-, medium-, and low-performing schools. That only perpetuates the lottery game that has driven many families out of the system entirely.

The emphasis on equity is well-intentioned. But it wrongly assumes that school quality in Boston is static. Schools can and do turn around under talented principals with the power to choose their teachers and lengthen the school day. Boldness calls for a new system based on pressure — neighborhood pressure — to make that happen in every school in the city. That translates into demands for talented teachers to be bused into a low-performing school instead of busing out large numbers of neighborhood kids.

The school assignment plan most likely to be chosen represents only a marginal improvement.

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The members of the mayor’s advisory committee have been reluctant to tackle the roughly $85 million annual cost of busing students all over town. But they practically assured high costs for years to come by insisting that younger siblings receive assignment priorities at the far-flung schools now attended by their older brothers and sisters. The good news is that all of the options before the committee would reduce the median distance students travel to school. The bad news is that the option most likely to win a majority of votes— Home-based B —is estimated to save just $256,000 in annual busing costs.

This week, City Councilor John Connolly said he is seriously considering a mayoral run as a way to inject “new ideas, new energy, and new leadership’’ into the future of Boston’s schools. He senses an opening. Meanwhile, the door is closing on the best opportunity in many years for Boston to join the ranks of normal cities and towns where families can expect their children to attend the school closest to home.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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