Four decades after court-ordered busing, Boston’s education gap remains
A computerized system that Boston uses to assign students to schools is exacerbating segregation among the city’s schools while locking out many black and Latino students from high-performing ones, according to a report released Monday night.
The divide between those who have access to the best schools and those who don’t could not be more stark. More than 80 percent of kindergarten students in Charlestown, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and central Boston who enroll in the city’s school system attend a high-quality school — as measured by test scores — while only 5 percent of kindergartners in Mattapan do, according to the report by the Boston Area Research Initiative at Northeastern University. The school system commissioned the report.
The findings illustrate the negligible progress Boston has made in the four decades since court-ordered busing began in closing the gap in educational opportunities: The city’s historically white neighborhoods still have a disproportionate share of high-quality schools, while historically black neighborhoods, including Mattapan, have fewer options, even though they have a higher density of students, the report found.
Consequently, black students on average commute nearly 2 miles to attend a high-quality school — almost twice the distance traveled by white and Asian students.
“Unfortunately, these two issues — fewer high-quality schools and more students competing for them — come together in the very neighborhoods where the most vulnerable and historically disadvantaged populations live,” the report stated. “This creates a deep and pernicious context for the emergence of inequities in assignment.”
The findings highlight the challenges Boston faces in guaranteeing quality schools close to home for all students regardless of demographic background or ZIP code. To achieve this, Boston did away with traditional school attendance boundaries drawn on a map and adopted what was billed as a revolutionary computer program developed by MIT researchers that provides students a range of choices within a certain proximity of their home.
Under the system, approved by the School Committee in 2013 and implemented a year later, students are guaranteed at least six school choices of varying quality and can also select any other school within an approximately 1-mile radius of their home. If there are not enough quality choices close to home, the algorithm will fill in the gap by adding choices that are farther away.
The system replaced a nearly 25-year-old court-approved desegregation plan, and it was considered a victory for then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino, attracting national media attention.
The findings add to the challenges facing newly appointed interim Superintendent Laura Perille, and for the first time ties her to a policy decision she had a hand in developing. Perille sat on the 27-member external advisory committee that vetted the assignment system and was part of the majority that recommended it to the School Committee for approval.
She presented the report to the committee Monday night.
“This issue is very dear to me,” Perille said during the School Committee meeting Monday night, noting the external advisory group called for the analysis. “This is absolutely vital information. While the current [assignment system] might be viewed as a big step forward, what the equity analysis shows us is that implementation is not all the way there.”
Despite the buzz around the new assignment system, many education and civil rights advocates have been skeptical throughout the ensuing years, primarily because they were keenly aware that the city lacked enough quality schools and that they tended to be located in more affluent neighborhoods. They questioned whether disadvantaged students would actually gain access to them and have been awaiting the analysis.
“I hope the results lead to a thoughtfulness and urgency of action necessary to improve quality of educational opportunities for all our children,” said Matt Cregor, education project director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, who had not yet seen the report.
A half dozen civil rights groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee and the Boston chapter of the NAACP, issued a statement expressing disappointment that the new system increased segregation.
Adding further complexities to the debate is disagreement among educators, parents, students, and other advocates on what constitutes a quality school. Some prefer strict reliance on test scores; others opt for a more nuanced assessment that takes into consideration whether schools offer art, music, physical education, freshly prepared lunches, after-school programs, and the like.
Kevin Murray of Quality Education for Every Student, a grass-roots parent organization, said many parents and advocates knew the new system was dangerous from the start.
“I think they need to throw the [assignment system] out and start over,” Murray said in an interview Monday afternoon. “It’s clear this has been a colossal failure. Somebody has to apologize to people who had only 5 percent access to high-performing schools.”
Daniel T. O’Brien, an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern, who was the lead author of the report, said in an interview Monday morning the problems uncovered are fixable.
“The important lesson here is we can improve upon the system, and we can see ways to make it stronger and more equitable,” he said.
But he said any changes will likely stir deep conversations. For instance, to improve the chances that disadvantaged students will get into a high-quality or medium-quality school in neighborhoods with lots of students living in them, officials may need to provide them with more such schools — which might mean making fewer choices available to students in other parts of the city.
The researchers examined admission for kindergarten and sixth-grade students for the 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17 school years.
The researchers determined the system “was unsuccessful in creating equitable access to high-quality schools,” especially since the computerized program favors granting admission to students who live near a school. An analysis of kindergarten admissions revealed the new system was causing an increase in segregation in schools, one that was not dramatic, but significant enough to warrant further monitoring.
Nancy E. Hill, coauthor of the report and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the intense competition for the relatively small number of high-quality seats in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan caused fewer students from those neighborhoods to get their first choice of a school. Instead, those students often ended up attending schools in the bottom half of performance.
“We cannot lose sight of the fact that black and Latino children, who are already disadvantaged in other ways, face greater competition to get into” high-performing schools, Hill said in a statement. “The deck is already stacked against them in society, and this policy has made it harder for them to get the educational foundation they need to succeed.”
The report also faulted the School Department for mishandling the rollout of the system.
For instance, parents seeking schools for sixth-graders often were not given any high-quality options. That’s because the school system used the same algorithm for sixth-graders as it did for its kindergarten lottery, even though the system’s elementary schools end at grade five, and then cut those schools from the school choice list for the older students.
The report did find that the school system made progress in achieving its goal of reducing travel distances to schools, which school officials hope will help rein in escalating transportation costs. Such costs consume about 10 percent of the district’s $1.1 billion budget.