The Parent Imperfect hit another of those dry spots over the holidays and is just now recovering. It’s not as if there is nothing to be imperfect about. The debate about school assignment in the Boston Public Schools is coming to a belated climax…belated because a variety of community voices have insisted on a deeper and more thoughtful discussion of the issue.
Mayor Menino has emerged from a period of serious health problems, which is great news. To his credit, he has plunged right back into the conversation about the schools: I only wish his time away from the everyday demands of the city had allowed him to alter his point of view, even slightly. This is one place where enlightened leadership could really improve a policy outcome.
The discussion between the BPS and the External Advisory Committee named by the Mayor has now settled on three options. One would carve up the three current assignment zones in to ten smaller zones. It would offer parents a few more citywide school options, but would greatly limit the choices available to all families. If you live near good schools, you’ll probably have a better chance of getting your children into one of those schools. If you don’t, you won’t.
The other two options are variants of a plan offered by Peng Shi and his associates at MIT. This plan would offer each family a “basket” of choices that included some schools very close to their home.and other choices further away. The choice basket would include schools of varying “quality” (according to the test-based way the State defines school quality), so that every family would have some higher quality and some lower quality choices in their basket.
The ten-zone plan is a non-starter from the perspective of providing fair access to the quality schools that exist in the system. If you color-code the city’s schools in terms of quality and take even a quick look at the map, you can see that the ten-zone plan stacks the deck in favor of certain zones. Guess which ones?
If you live two blocks from the Lyndon, you are looking at a dramatically different set of options than if you live two blocks from the Mattahunt. Even with a few additional citywide options, the ten-zone plan will increase inequalities in access to quality public education in Boston. If the ten-zone plan goes forward, geography will be destiny for even more Boston schoolchildren than it is today.
As many have said, the MIT plans (called “home-based” plans, an unfortunate choice of words that confuses more than it clarifies) seem more promising, but, as always, more than a few devils lurk among the details.
As currently being discussed, the MIT plans continue to apply the one-mile walk zone in a couple of ways. If the plans are implemented this way, the families who live closer to very good schools will have more good schools in their choice basket and PRESTO, those families will find it easier to place their children in those good schools. Sound familiar? In a detailed report on the MIT proposals, Peng is very clear about this effect of applying the walk zone to his plan. That detail somehow didn’t make it into the BPS’s summary of the Peng report for the EAC. I’m sure that was just an oversight.
As Peng also says, the walk-zone preference is not necessary to his plan because the choice basket, by design, already includes a number of “close to home” schools. Add the walk zone to a choice basket already weighted toward “close to home” and you’ve got a form of “double jeopardy.” Maybe it would be better to call it the “double whammy” for children living in poorly-schooled neighborhoods.
Neither of the MIT plans is even close to perfect, but if they are implemented in a transparent way (a huge “if”) without the walk-zone preference, either of them should result in fairer (not completely fair…there will still be much work to do improving the quality if struggling schools) access to quality across all Boston neighborhoods.
Not surprisingly, one senses that the fix is in. Rather than present the ten-zone plan as one concept and the MIT “diverse choice basket” concept as the alternative, the BPS presented the EAC with two versions of the Peng plan, alongside the ten-zone plan. What would happen if, in the race to replace John Kerry in the Senate, there were two Democrats and one Republican on the ballot?
The EAC should be choosing between a ten-zone plan that works much like the current system (just with more zones), on the one hand, and the innovative MIT concept of offering each family a fixed basket of choices of varying quality and distance from home, on the other. Alternatively, let’s put the six-zone plan with “access to quality interventions” back on the table. That option disappeared the last time the cards were shuffled. It is no prize, but it clearly more equitable than the ten-zone plan that popped up at the last minute.
On Monday and Tuesday of this coming week, public meetings will be held to give you a chance to raise your voice on this issue (Monday from 6-8 at Orchard Gardens and Tuesday from 6-7 at Suffolk University). If you care about this issue, take the time to come out and be heard. Some other time could well be too late.