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OPINION

Will taking kids out of buses guarantee a good school for every Boston student?

While I would never want to get into a debate with a team of MIT researchers on the merits of their findings, it’s fair to question whether they will now be used to justify the end of busing as a way to save money.

Boston Public Schools students headed back to school Sept. 8 and many had to wait for late or no-show school buses.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Is the pain of busing schoolchildren across the city worth the cost? A new study by MIT’s Blueprint Lab suggests that if the measurement of success is test scores and college attendance, the answer is no.

“Choice today works to integrate schools … but it doesn’t produce any measurable impacts on learning outcomes or college enrollment,” Josh Angrist, a Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist and one of the study’s coauthors, told the Globe. (The study looked at test scores and college attendance for students entering sixth and ninth grades from 2002 to 2013.)

While I would never want to debate a team of MIT researchers over the technical merits of their findings, it’s fair to question whether they will now be used to justify the end of busing as a way to save money, not to mention the nagging problem of late-arriving buses. And that will distract from what should be the underlying issue: how to guarantee a good school for every student, no matter where they live in Boston.

Today, Boston spends over $140 million annually to bus 21,500 students each school day. That’s a lot. As Ted Landsmark, a civil rights lawyer who came to symbolize the city’s racial strife when he was assaulted by an anti-busing protester wielding an American flag, told the Globe, reinvesting that money in “resources available to inner city young people” would be an acceptable outcome. But that’s a big “if.”

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Yet a cost-to-benefits analysis, as defined by MIT, now seems inevitable. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see this gin up the fiscal debate a bit, which would now involve an inclusion-focused mayor, a very diverse school committee and City Council, a superintendent from Dorchester, and a diverse Boston delegation at the State House,” said Kevin A. McCluskey, who served on the Boston School Committee from 1980 to 1987, including a stint as president, and is now an associate director of athletics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “It certainly can’t hurt to have that healthy fiscal conversation, including the added environmentally healthy benefit of fewer diesel fumes, of course.”

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To have busing on the table as part of a fiscal debate shows that when it comes to addressing school equity, Boston is in a much different place than it was in 1974. That’s when US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. concluded that the Boston School Committee had violated the rights of Black students by giving them a substandard education and ordered the school system to comply with a desegregation plan drawn up under his supervision.

To make things right back then, white and Black students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods. Complying with Garrity’s order tore the city apart and changed its demographics, as white families fled the city. As the MIT study points out, the Boston school desegregation case was officially closed in 1997, and race has not factored into Boston school assignments since 2000. But the hurt, division, and mistrust connected to that part of Boston history still shapes politics and neighborhood attitudes.

A Globe editorial published on June 25, 1974, in support of Garrity’s court order strikes a note of optimism that, today, sounds positively naive. The ruling, wrote the editorial board, “comes like an operation to cure a long and crippling illness. The procedure may be painful but at least it is definite and the chances of healing are great.” The editorial ended with the hope that “the tide may have turned in favor of good public schools for everyone in the city.”

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Although some research concluded that desegregation in the1970s did increase school quality for Black students, a good school for every student has yet to happen. Just last year, Mayor Michelle Wu fought off an effort by state education officials to put the Boston system under receivership, and the city is now working to comply with the terms of a state improvement plan. Meanwhile, Boston is losing students.

Today’s student population is 43 percent Hispanic; 32 percent Black; 8.7 percent white; and 1.6 percent Asian. So busing does not necessarily integrate a school. But as Barbara Fields, the former head of the district’s Office of Equity, told the Globe, the political power and wealth that some parents bring to their children’s schools results in disparities between different neighborhood schools.

What does it take to change that? That remains the great, unanswered question. Putting kids in buses didn’t end the inequities, and given the history, there’s no guarantee taking kids out of buses will end them either.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.