Common Sense 17 – Political Expediency 14 (OT)

Flag FootballThese days, the Parent Imperfect is pouring too many of his words into a  writing project for which they pay him. Imagine that! But occasionally something happens that even a harried PI must talk about.

On Thursday night, while I was at the Irving School, speaking to Connie’s teachers about sixth grade, the Mayor’s External Advisory Committee (EAC) announced a change in its timeline for making a decision on a new school assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. Yippee!

An activist alerted the QUEST list at mid-afternoon that big news was coming, and the BPS made it official with an e-mail to its Boston School Choice mailing list just before 5PM. The EAC was meeting that evening so the public announcement came at the City Hall confab.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s External Advisory Committee on School Choice will continue its work through January as it creates an improved student assignment system for the city’s children and families. The Mayor’s decision supports Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s recommendation that her technical team work with Professor Parag Pathak, director of the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII) at MIT, and experts at Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

(Oh boy…don’t you feel safer already? Both Harvard and MIT are going to be involved. I wonder if bringing in these heavy hitters means that our friend, Peng Shi, gets kicked to the curb.)

The EAC had already made at least 4 adjustments to its timeline, but this one was different. By making this change, the Mayor is acknowledging that his original insistence on a decision in time for an announcement at the January 13 “State of the City” speech just wasn’t workable. The Mayor’s health problems have probably put the speech, itself, in doubt, but the point here is that there will not be a new assignment plan in mid-January. The same message that announced the change quoted the Mayor saying:

This close to a successful outcome, I want to ensure the EAC has the time it needs to get it right.

OK….This is a victory for every family that relies on the Boston Public Schools for the education of its children. It’s also a victory for common sense over political expediency, and common sense seldom wins those confrontations. Anyone who attended any of the EAC meetings over the past two or three months knew very well that the Committee was nowhere near being able to make an informed decision on the complex issues that sit just beneath the surface of this conversation. My fear was that the ticking clock was going to force them to make a highly pressurized decision without information, but, for the moment, I can focus on other fears.

Mr. GoarWhen the BPS opened this current round of discussions with a public presentation in September of “the six assignment alternatives,” Dr. Johnson and her then Assistant Superintendent Michael Goar certainly thought that this was going to be an easier discussion. Perhaps Mr. Goar knew what was coming, though, as hours after that meeting at the Lila Fredericks Middle School he announced that he was bailing for a job at a nonprofit in Minnesota. The alternatives presented by Mr. Goar are now barely recognizable in the conversation, which is all to the credit of the EAC and the community groups that have kept hope alive.

The message that night was clear. It went something like this…”We are making great strides in improving the quality of the Boston Public Schools. Our 11 “turnaround schools” are becoming stronger by the week and we have identified 21 additional schools that are “in need of support.” We have a plan to improve those schools, as well. Trust that our commitment to quality will continue to show results as we implement an assignment plan that is more predictable, rational and efficient. Money saved by putting the buses back in their garages will support our ongoing efforts to improve quality.” (That’s not a quote from anyone, but a summary of my notes of the presentations of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Goar.)

At least some members of the the EAC weren’t buying it. The second person to comment on the presentations said that he had expected the BPS to integrate quality concerns into its proposals by coming up with models that guaranteed equality of access to the quality existing in the system. It was not enough to create a system that would get more kids in schools “closer to home” if that locked out other children from quality school seats. Many meetings and hours of discussions later, to its credit, the EAC is still trying to see that this question is addressed, along with other equally important questions about how Special Education students and English Language Learners will fare in the new system.

The announcement on Thursday night reflects the EAC’s realization that it needs more time and more information to make its decision. It also reflects the City’s realization that forcing an immediate decision, based on a political deadline, promises more costs than benefits for the Mayor. It’s also entirely possible that the City’s political leadership and that of the BPS have learned from the discussion that this issue is more complex, and more important to the community than they originally thought. The BPS deserves credit for engaging with the community on this issue, and for showing a degree of flexibility, as well.

I wasn’t at the EAC meeting on Thursday night, but I doubt that Kim Janey, Barbara Fields, Megan Wolf and the other proponents of making access to quality education a consideration in the assignment plan were dancing in the aisles of the BRA room in City Hall. If they were, then I’m sorry to have missed it!

This a reprieve that offers no guarantees of how the debate will turn out. The BPS insists that it will have a new assignment plan in place for the 2014-15 school year, and I believe then mean it. There is much work to be done to be sure that this plan offers real improvements over the current assignment plan that offers some children much better chances to achieve their right to quality education than others. The QUEST continues…

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4 Comments

Filed under School Assignment

4 responses to “Common Sense 17 – Political Expediency 14 (OT)

  1. Kathy

    I hope they continue to include Peng Shi in this analysis. Good news is that he is a part of this group at MIT in the Economics Dept. http://seii.mit.edu/about/

    • Thanks, Kathy. I agree with you. Peng understands the problem and isn’t limited by any conceptions of the “sacred cows” of Boston politics. I expect he will be part of the MIT group, but under the control of someone with more of an institutional interest. That more senior person might be more susceptible to the “reality” of the situation.

      • I don’t think anything has actually changed regarding Peng’s involvement. He was already working with Dr. Parag Pathak to create a demand model which will allow him to simulate the impact of the various proposals. Dr. Pathak is the person who created a similar model for NYC high schools. As far as I know, that is the only previous attempt to simulate school choice at this level of sophistication.

      • Thanks, Josh. That’s very good to know. I should also say that I have appreciated your inputs to this process.

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