Central to the agita over remaking Boston’s byzantine school assignment system is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. The city wants more parents to choose schools close to home, believing that will help improve them. But many parents want to see those schools improve before they’ll send their kids to them.

Everybody agrees it would be beyond great if every kid could walk to a good school. Less travel time means more students could take part in after-school programs, and more parents could get to school events. More schools could be community hubs, like churches used to be.

Heaven, right? But here’s another fact on which everybody agrees, and it’s a depressing one: Sixteen years after Mayor Tom Menino invited voters to judge him harshly on his efforts to transform education, there are still schools to which many parents wouldn’t dream of sending their kids. And those parents are terrified a new assignment system would give them no choice.

“We can play around with drawing lines on a map, but at the end of the day, there aren’t enough quality schools to go around,” says Kim Janey, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.


The current system is a disaster, so bewildering and unpredictable that it sends middle-class parents running for the suburbs or for parochial and charter schools. An alarming number of the remaining kids the city spends tens of millions busing each year get little benefit from the trek, arriving at schools no better than those they could walk to.

Most of those unlucky souls are concentrated in the East Zone, the third of the city that includes South Boston, Mattapan, parts of Dorchester, and Hyde Park. Citywide, while 84 percent of white kids (who make up 13 percent of students) are landing in quality schools, only 52 percent of African American kids and 61 percent of Latino kids manage it, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.


“Moving kids around the city is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” says City Councillor John Connolly, who supports a new assignment plan.

But as messed up as it is, for some parents, the current system is a lifeline, making it possible for a kid who lives near a low-performing school in Southie to vie for a spot in a better school in Dorchester. Those parents worry that — even though the city is considering a variety of options that provide a degree of citywide choice — their children will be stuck at low-performing schools closer to home.

“There is a perception out there that this is being done to attract middle class families back,” Janey says. “The worry is that it will come at the expense of poorer families who . . . don’t have other options.”

The only way to make everybody happy is to offer a great education everywhere. Connolly and others reckon that’s more likely to happen if schools are more connected to their communities. “Having a system that stresses close-to-home doesn’t guarantee quality, but it creates a launch pad that might get us to quality,” he says.

But the if-you-come-we-will-build-it approach is a tougher sell in poorer communities, where it’s hard for struggling parents to get involved, and where more kids have hard-to-solve problems that begin way before kindergarten.

Schools in those neighborhoods need far more resources than others if they’re going to thrive. Some are getting them. The Trotter school in Grove Hall, for example, where Connolly sends his child, has made great strides. School officials say plenty of other failing schools are well on the way.


We are seeing remarkable improvements in some formerly awful schools — enough that we shouldn’t put off remaking the current dysfunctional assignment system any longer.

But make no mistake. We are asking a great deal of parents in this overhaul, especially those in the East Zone. We’re demanding that they make giant leaps of faith. Who can blame them for balking?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com