THERE WAS a time, just 20 years ago, when living in the city of Boston seemed, in itself, to be a sacrifice: Longtime residents viewed themselves as holdouts against an unstoppable tide of outmigration. Neighborhoods fought to maintain their historic character. Crime was enough of a fact of life that shooting victims were recalled less by their names than by their tragic circumstances: the little girl on the mailbox; the grandmother in her living room; the young professional woman who took the wrong road.
Crime still plagues some parts of Boston, and not every block gleams with renewal. But a historic change has occurred. While those who stand in the midst of a transformation can’t fully witness it, Bostonians should understand just how much the tectonic plates of urban life have shifted beneath them. It is now fashionable to own an older home. Public transportation is a treasured resource. Buyers put a premium on being able to walk to neighborhood stores and restaurants. And between 1990 and 2010, the rise in Boston property values easily outpaced that of the suburbs.
Yet Boston’s schools still carry an old stigma, the sense that problems are deep-seated, that students who go there either lack other choices or have parents who are making a courageous statement. This perception doesn’t reflect the improvements being made every day. Still, the system seems stuck in the past, not fully able to transcend the pathologies that led to its decline. The school-assignment process, with its legendary complications, transmits the wrong signals: that parents need to work hard to find good options; that close-to-home schools may not be viable; that a pupil’s fate can be determined by a lottery number, as if kids were mere ping-pong balls to be blown into holes.
And yet the potential for excellence is vividly on display in Boston schools. They already outperform most urban districts around the country. And while society rightly views urban public schools as facing unusual challenges, treating them like social problems only masks their potential. For just as Boston neighborhoods from the South End to the North End to Jamaica Plain to South Boston exceeded comparable suburbs in growth and desirability, the Boston schools can one day outperform the suburban systems that surround them.
The resources are already there. Boston already has one of the highest per-student expenditures in the state, and the city’s property-tax base is only likely to grow amid a continuing trend away from heavy-traffic commutes, and toward urban living.
The Boston of the 1970s is long gone. What’s needed now is a return to normality, to a system where most kids go to school near their homes, and follow a predictable path to middle school. Those who seek a different experience - through the performing arts, two-way bilingual education, or intensive math and science, among other subjects - can find exciting options through magnet schools. Choice should be used to highlight the varied programs available in a big, urban system - not as a way to scramble the map, sending children on an hours-long odyssey in search of better principals and teachers.
Good schools tend to grow up organically. Standards are best enforced not only by the school department but the community itself. If too many people are uninvested in the schools - don’t send their kids there, don’t have kids, don’t care - then all the school-assignment alchemy in the world won’t make up the deficit.
The quality of Boston’s schools will shape the city’s future. They can be the bridge between the Boston of downtown wealth and the Boston of families and neighborhoods. Connecting the two will make life in the city balanced and sustainable. The stakes are high enough that Boston must move quickly - and confidently - to put its schools on a new path.
Last in a series of editorials on Boston’s school assignment policy.