‘YOU LIVE here, you go there.’’ That sums up the school-assignment process for most students in Massachusetts. Many Boston families can only look on with envy. For them, school assignments are determined by a jumble of zones, geocodes, algorithms, sibling preferences, and waiting lists.
In the decades following the busing era of the 1970s, the process became so complicated that many Bostonians insist it can’t be changed without shutting numerous schools and reopening new ones, as if the school department were wrestling with an intractable math problem.
But that’s not so: Though closing some schools and opening others would be necessary, the school department is well-positioned to shift to a system that would guarantee children slots in schools near their homes, while maintaining an element of choice and flexibility.
The desegregation order that required the busing of students has long expired, leaving Boston free to adopt any assignment plan it chooses. And outside of a few neighborhoods, such as Beacon Hill and West Roxbury, the likelihood of overwhelmingly white classrooms has been tempered by residential integration.
The current policy allows families to compete for seats in any school within one of three sprawling zones, each covering roughly a third of the city. This model leaves much to be desired. It requires about $40 million in extra busing costs - beyond the $30 million spent on transporting special-needs children - and creates a lot of unhappy customers. This year, school opened with nearly 18 percent of the student body - 10,000 students - on waiting lists, hoping to get a different assignment.
Increasing the number of zones to 10 or 12 - as many workable proposals have done - would greatly reduce the uncertainty that drives many families to private schools or homes in the suburbs. There would be fewer choices, but the vast majority of students would be able to walk to school, and parents and neighbors could embrace the school as a center of community activity.
A myth persists that there are too few seats in some neighborhoods, such as Roxbury, to enlarge the number of zones. But school planning officials say it is well within the system’s capability to draw smaller zones that would reduce transportation costs and increase continuity between elementary and middle schools.
Many such plans already exist. Since the late 1990s, consultants from Bain & Company and school department officials have crafted numerous alternatives to the current system, including 10- or 12-zone maps that keep the neighborhoods of East Boston, the South End, Brighton, South Boston, Roslindale, and Roxbury largely intact while combining others, such as Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury. Large neighborhoods, such as Dorchester, are divided into clusters that represent geographic communities as understood in Boston.
A shift to such a system would give families a smaller range of choices, but make them more meaningful; studies have shown that when presented with limited options, consumers eagerly compare and contrast. When confronting a universe of choices, they are often intimidated to the point of inertia - a complaint frequently heard in Boston.
Nonetheless, school officials and citizen advisory boards have shied away from the 10-zone and 12-zone models. The reluctance is best summed up in a 2004 report of task force members who spent months trying to find common ground between neighborhood-school supporters and people who favored the widest possible choices. It would be unfair, they wrote, “to force parents to choose schools of lower quality than is currently available in other neighborhoods.’’
Half-solutions followed. The majority of the task force recommended moving from a three-zone system to a six-zone system. A few years later, Superintendent Carol Johnson introduced a five-zone plan, which she predicted would save up to $52 million in transportation costs over five years. But when the predictable opposition arose, she backed off, and the system remains frozen in place.
The argument that a neighborhood-based model would necessarily force some students into inferior schools is more and more outmoded. Once-failing schools, like the Elihu Greenwood elementary school in Hyde Park and the Dearborn middle school in Roxbury, have made impressive academic strides under new leadership. Past history does not predict future achievement, especially for schools in state-mandated “turnaround’’ status that are free of restrictive hiring rules. And alternatives outside the school district are increasing, including charter schools with exemplary records of closing the achievement gap between black and white students. As a last resort, the federal No Child Left Behind law provides an escape route for any student stuck in an underperforming school.
With 12 carefully drawn zones, children could be assigned to the school nearest their homes with the option of choosing the next closest school with available seats. A similar model in the 2004 report estimated that each zone would contain two to eight elementary schools and one to three middle schools. Recent closings and consolidations have changed the configuration somewhat, but the plan remains viable.
And once a new system is in place, a trust could be created to redirect millions of dollars now spent on transportation directly to underperforming schools. For example, the roughly $1,500 per pupil cost of busing students across the city could provide up to three hours of daily after-school tutoring from a high-quality nonprofit provider, such as Citizen Schools. Combined with the programs offered in neighborhood libraries and community centers, each child in need of adult supervision in the afternoon would be just steps away from it. Children would spend less time in transit, and more time learning.
Every objection to neighborhood schools - seat shortages, quality, equity - has a rational solution. The only missing ingredient is a bold decision.
Second in a series of editorials on Boston’s school assignment policy.