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The only way to fix Boston schools once and for all

A new superintendent is coming, again. But nothing would change the schools as dramatically as a lawsuit that gets city and suburban kids in the same classrooms.

Adobe/Globe Staff

Boston’s search for a new superintendent should feel like a moment of possibility — a chance to finally find someone with the savvy and resolve to turn around the city’s schools.

But after decades of disappointment — and an especially turbulent run of four schools chiefs in the last eight years — faith in transformative leadership is starting to feel foolhardy.

Even irresponsible.

For too long, outcomes for Black and Latino kids in the Boston Public Schools have been shamefully, life-alteringly bad. Dozens of schools are going without necessities like library books and potable water. And a scathing state report, released just before the pandemic hit in March 2020, found “staggering” absenteeism and a special education program in “systemic disarray.”


Some fed-up observers are calling on the state to seize control and appoint a receiver. And perhaps it should. Receivers have special powers to override union contracts and extend the school day.

But a receiver is, at bottom, a new leader — and leadership has its limits. Although the state has made some improvements to the Lawrence schools, that district still has its struggles. And interventions in Holyoke and Southbridge haven’t produced the hoped-for gains.

It’s time, then, for a more powerful tool — one capable of cracking up a failing system and constructing something entirely new: a sweeping desegregation lawsuit.

I’m not talking about the kind that led to Boston’s bruising busing experiment in the 1970s. That would be untenable, given the history, and rather useless to boot: Only 15 percent of Boston Public Schools students are white these days, making it impossible to integrate the district entirely from within.

What I’m suggesting, instead, is a lawsuit that would build a bridge between Boston’s mostly Black and brown students and their mostly white and Asian peers in the suburbs — allowing tens of thousands of students to voluntarily attend well-resourced, integrated schools together.


Sound like a pipe dream? Consider Sheff v. O’Neill.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of Milo Sheff, speaks outside the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2020. The Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case has led to many reforms in Greater Hartford schools.Chris Ehrmann/Associated Press

In the summer of 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in that case, finding that “extreme racial and ethnic isolation” had deprived Hartford students like fourth-grader Milo Sheff of the “substantially equal educational opportunity” guaranteed by the state constitution. And it directed the governor and state legislature to craft a remedy.

Lawmakers were slow to act. But the plaintiffs went back to court again and again. And what emerged over the years is one of the largest systems of voluntary integration in the country.

That system consists of two distinct programs. One called “Open Choice” allows Hartford students to attend suburban schools and suburban students to attend certain Hartford schools. About 2,300 students participate.

The other is built around a specially created network of 40 magnet schools, some located in Hartford and some in surrounding towns, that uses free pre-kindergarten and themes like aerospace and the performing arts to draw almost 19,000 students from across the region — urban and suburban kids alike.

The integrated schools have been sites of meaningful cross-cultural connection in a society with precious few. And they’ve had a measurable impact on achievement.

Hartford students who attend the magnets and the suburban schools outperform their peers in the regular Hartford public schools on state tests.

Success has meant high demand among Hartford families. And the chief complaint about the schools is that they haven’t been able to accommodate all of the kids who would like to attend.


But just a few weeks ago, a judge granted preliminary approval to a new agreement that would provide a seat in an integrated school to every Hartford student who wants one by 2028 — and bring the Sheff litigation to a close after years of negotiations over the best way to realize the court’s mandate of “substantially equal educational opportunity.”

Martha Stone, a lawyer who has worked on Sheff from the start, says states like Massachusetts — with constitutional provisions guaranteeing both a quality education and equal protection under the law — are ripe for similar litigation.

Advocates may have to spend years in the courts. But it’s worth it, she suggests, if it means deploying one of the most powerful — and underutilized — strategies for fixing failing schools.

Integration “absolutely needs to be pushed as one of the remedies,” Stone says. “I mean, look at the results of some of the other initiatives — they haven’t worked.”

Civil rights leaders in other states are taking the same tack.

A major desegregation case is working its way through the Minnesota courts now. And in New Jersey, after years of delays, a judge recently heard oral arguments in a similar lawsuit.

Gary Stein, a former New Jersey Supreme Court justice who helped organize the legal challenge, says the plaintiffs, including the Latino Action Network and the state branch of the NAACP, have been able to get by on a modest budget. Help from a pro bono team of lawyers and several volunteer education experts has kept the cost to about $150,000 so far.


And with that small outlay, he says, advocates are poised to root out an injustice that no governor or legislature has been willing to confront.

Some 270,000 Black and Latino students in New Jersey — about half of the statewide total — attend “intensely segregated” schools, where at least 90 percent of the students are kids of color. “We’re a northeastern, progressive state, and we shouldn’t have . . . schools as badly segregated as the ones we have,” Stein says. “It’s an embarrassment.”

Here in Massachusetts, where the number of “intensely segregated” nonwhite schools has grown by more than one-third in the last decade alone, the political class has shown no sign of urgency either.

That’s especially disappointing given Massachusetts’ extraordinarily successful — if too small — experiment with the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, known as Metco.

Started in 1966, Metco ranks among the oldest voluntary desegregation efforts in the country — busing about 3,000 Boston students to schools in wealthy suburbs like Newton, Belmont, and Marblehead.

Harvard researcher Ann Mantil has found that participants dramatically outperform students with similar demographic profiles in the Boston Public Schools — with high school graduation and college enrollment rates about 30 percentage points higher.

And her research shows it’s not just a matter of the most motivated Boston families flocking to the suburban schools while the rest stay behind; students who get a coveted referral to a suburban school do substantially better than similarly motivated kids who seek a referral but don’t get one.


Mantil’s findings align with decades of research from all over the country showing that integration yields stronger academic performance, greater college attendance, and higher adult earnings for low-income kids of color.

Better-off white kids in integrated classrooms see no decline in academic performance. And research suggests these students may reap some important benefits — sharpening their critical thinking skills and shedding some of their racial biases.

Given all that, you’d think Massachusetts lawmakers would be eyeing a major expansion of Metco. But it’s been a challenge just to maintain funding for the existing program.

Getting the state to double or triple the size of Metco — and to create a Sheff-style network of regional magnet schools that could attract urban and suburban families with, say, theater and dance programs or partnerships with powerhouse institutions like Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital — is probably going to require a lawsuit.

The most likely convener is Lawyers for Civil Rights, which played a key role in the push to desegregate Boston’s schools in the 1970s.

Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, whose immigrant mother made sure to send him to integrated schools, says he has been monitoring the developments in the Sheff case and is very much open to a similar challenge in Massachusetts.

He has no doubt that lawyers from prominent Boston law firms would be eager to work on this sort of case pro bono; Lawyers for Civil Rights’ entire model is built around coordinating with the private bar.

And the plaintiffs would have a strong case. Segregation has deepened in this region, by many measures. In 1980, several years after court-ordered desegregation went into effect in the Boston schools, only 2 percent of students of color in the district attended intensely segregated schools. Now it’s 66 percent, according to a Boston Indicators report from 2020.

These racially isolated students have nothing like the well-appointed science labs and in-school television studios their suburban counterparts enjoy. And Boston’s public schools haven’t come close to realizing their charges’ academic potential. About three-quarters of the district’s Black students do not “meet expectations” on the MCAS, a basic test of proficiency in core subjects like English and math.

But a legal challenge can succeed only with broad community support, Espinoza-Madrigal says. Local civil rights groups and churches and activists would have to rally around the cause.

Predicting when that kind of mobilization might happen in Greater Boston is difficult, he says. But this does feel like an opportune moment. A longshot bid to overhaul admissions policies at Boston Latin and the city’s other exam schools caught on during the pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd — forcing changes that have provided greater access to kids of color. A push for a partially or fully elected school committee seems to be gaining momentum, too. And a regional desegregation push, he says, “could be highly appealing” to emboldened activists.

That doesn’t mean everyone will get on board. At least not right away. Many leaders of color bristle at the notion that proximity to whiteness is some kind of elixir for Black and brown children — and rightly so.

But race, as integration advocates point out, is highly correlated with wealth in this country. And there are clear advantages to joining better-off children in better-off schools.

“It’s not about sitting next to white kids,” says Cara McClellan, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has worked on Sheff and other desegregation cases. “It’s about ensuring equity in resources and disrupting a history of white supremacy. As long as we’re able to separate entire communities based on race, we’re going to continue to have an apartheid system in terms of the quality of education that our government is providing to students. And one sure way of disrupting that is to make sure students are in the same buildings getting access to the same things.”

This is not to say that the Boston Public Schools should be fully dismantled.

Some parents — Black, white, Asian, and Latino — will always prefer to send their children to neighborhood schools. And who can begrudge them that? A long ride to a suburban school isn’t for everyone.

But the thousands of families who want another choice should have one. And advocates don’t need to wait for risk-averse lawmakers or governors to make that choice available.

They just have to organize, raise some money, and go to court.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him @dscharfGlobe.