Assignment Blues

The Parent Imperfect should know enough to not say much about the Boston school assignment debate, but he can’t resist. Our family can’t complain too much about how the BPS assignment derby has turned out for us. After being in the system for 11 years, we’re facing the prospect of not getting our first choice for the first time in Connie’s assignment for sixth grade. We’ve been very fortunate.

In December of last year, the Globe published an article that sums up the school assignment problem in Boston pretty well. After talking about the peculiarities and obvious problems of the current assignment system, it suggests:

every attempt to create smaller zones over the last two decades has failed because there have not been enough high-quality schools to go around. Some neighborhoods, such as West Roxbury, have a strong selection of solid-performing schools, while Roxbury and some other areas have a concentration of the worst-performing schools in the state.

It’s not about percentages, and bus routes and school assignment forms, its about quality schools for all children. If everyone had access to good quality schools in their neighborhood, the debate about school choice and school assignment would be very different. But they don’t, so it’s up to the BPS to figure out how to make available a scarce social good…quality education. Want to change how kids are assigned to schools? Great, but please tell me how the change will improve the quality of schools in all neighborhoods.

As long as many schools are perceived by parents to be sub-par, families will seek other, better options, inside and outside of the public schools. Until there are more quality public schools accessible to all students, people will resist having their access to “good” schools limited by a move toward “community” or “neighborhood” schools. The result is a deadlock around a system that no one loves, with lots of children getting bussed around the city and a good number of families that can’t get their kids into attractive schools located close to their homes.

I certainly have my questions about how the BPS is addressing the question of system-wide school improvement, but the district is working on improving quality. The BPS is engaged in a number of initiatives to improve the quality of education at troubled schools. The “Turnaround Schools” initiative is only one of these. It seems that these efforts are producing some results, but nothing like what is needed. Like differences in neighborhoods, differences in schools reflect powerful social inequalities that resist change. As a result, demand for spots in stronger schools is high and it continues to increase as the alternatives become more expensive and BPS early education programs get more positive attention.  More people are not getting what they want.

The current system uses a lottery to distribute the “scarce good” of seats in high-performing schools. But it is not a free-for all in which any student can sign up for any school. The city is broken up into three big “assignment zones” and, for the most part, one can only apply for schools in their assignment zone. In addition, the lottery has big preferences for two groups: siblings of kids already in the school and people who live within the 1.5-mile “walk zone” of a given school. Siblings almost always get in to their first choice. Lots of neighborhood kids do, as well, but some do not. I would be willing to bet that any  “oversubscribed” school in the city draws significantly more than 50% of its students from its walk zone. Schools are not currently disconnected from their neighborhoods by the assignment process. Still, there are lots of families that desperately want access to a school near their home and they can’t get it. Some of these families get profiled every year in the Globe, and it’s hard not to wince as you read these stories.

The Mayor seems to have had enough. He’s drawn a very public line in the sand saying that the BPS is going to find a way to get more kids in schools that are close to their homes. Logically, that would mean having smaller assignment zones and giving more preference to kids in a school’s walk zone. What would happen if we do that? People who happen to live close to a high-performing school would have more chance to get into that school. On the other hand, those living in neighborhoods with fewer good options would have a much harder time getting into a quality school. This change would give all neighborhoods an incentive to improve “their” schools, but what is the evidence that this incentive will lead to better schools across Boston? The Mayor, and those who agree with him, are essentially saying that the shortage of quality schools in some neighborhoods can no longer keep us from changing a broken assignment process.

At a recent public meeting on the assignment process, several people echoed the School Department’s claim that doing less busing will free up a lot of $$$ to improve schools. “We can’t turn around failing schools when we’re spending $90million per year on transport.” OK, but since the city has to bus charter and parochial school students, as well as BPS students, the district would have to make a drastic change in school assignment to save a significant amount on transport costs. The need to make capital improvements to school facilities would suck up any busing savings quicker than you can read this too long post. I’d like to see the Superintendent guarantee that she’d dedicate any budget savings in transport from a new assignment scheme to a fund supporting the Turnaround Schools initiative.

So it does seem that the fix is in. Unless a well-organized coalition of groups can impress upon the Mayor the potential downside of further restricting school choice in a system with quality problems, I fear that there will be fewer good school choices for many BPS families. I hope I’m wrong. There will be winners and losers in a new assignment plan. Unfortunately, many of the losers in that transaction are likely to be those who can least afford the loss.


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