The Walk-Zone PREFERENCE

Assignment Meeting 2The Parent Imperfect and family escaped Boston for a few days of “spring training” during the school vacation week, but did get back in time to see Larry Harmon’s op-ed in Saturday’s Globe about the disappointing results of the school assignment debate in Boston. It seems clear that Larry’s views have been driving the Globe’s editorial position on school assignment, so it’s great that he has come out into the open with a column seeking to explain a really major change in the Globe’s positioning on this issue.

Harmon sees the likely outcome of the community discussion as a “lost opportunity.” For Harmon, the opportunity lay in Mayor Menino’s bold call for a “radically different” assignment policy that would have “more children going to school closer to home.” The piece suggests that, except for three true believers, the External Advisory Committee (EAC) selected by the Mayor has been misguided in its insistence on bringing equity into the conversation. These EAC members, are “well-intentioned,” but they fail to understand that school quality is not static.

For me, the members of the EAC who have consistently upheld the idea of equal access to the quality in the system are among the heroes in this less-than-heroic process. With lots of help from their friends in the community, they have changed the discussion around school assignment in ways that may (one must wait to see what actually happens) limit the damage caused by today’s changes and make an even bigger difference in the future.

Getting InGiven today’s walk-zone preference (with no changes to the preference percentage or the way the BPS implements that preference), the better-quality schools are right now made up of something like 57% students from the immediate neighborhood. Can Harmon and the Globe really be saying that the city would be better served if the demographics of its schools looked even more like the demographics of its neighborhoods?

There is an argument here that if we force more families to choose neighborhood schools (regardless of quality), then “school communities” will emerges around those schools, thus making it easier to improve both the communities and the schools. If that’s what you think, Larry, why not present the data that back up that idea? I expect that there is never any data in support of this idea because the data simply don’t exist. When neighborhoods are segregated racially and divided economically (and, Larry, Boston’s still are), neighborhood schools simply have not been the magic bullet leading to school quality. I have really been searching for the data that will prove me wrong on this, but it just ain’t out there.

If you read the PI’s ramblings, you know that dear Connie now attends a school (The Washington Irving Middle School) within walking distance of our home. This is likely to be the only year of her 13 in the BPS (if all goes well) that she will be able to walk to school (her brother will likely be in the system for 14 years without ever walking to school). While Connie has been conducting civil disobedience against walking to school in the winter, in the fall this was very nice. I can certainly see why people love the idea of going to that school that is just a couple of blocks away, especially if it is a good school. According to the BPS, over three-fourths of families who choose preferred schools at registration choose at least one school close to their home in their top three choices.

All other things being equal (which they never are), I would prefer that Connie not board a bus each morning. I’m glad that the Mayor is taking my preference into account as he make policy choices about the schools. Thanks, Mayor! However, every family in Boston has an equal right to access to quality education through the Boston Public Schools. This happens to be the law, but it is more important to me as a moral principle. That means, on the one hand, that the City needs to do all it can to provide quality education in all of its schools. It also means that the City must not, through its policies, give some children unreasonable preferential access to the quality that exists in the system, while denying other children that access.

This does not mean that every child must have equal access to every school in the system, but it does mean that the Mayor and the School Committee ought to be thinking very seriously about equity of access to quality education when they make assignment policy for the BPS. In doing so, they can and should take into account resource issues such as the cost of transport and my preference (along with that of many others) to send dear Connie to a school near our home. But when my preferences conflict with the rights of families (including my own) to equal access to quality education, there should be no question what should drive policy choices made by public officials. Why would the Globe suggest otherwise?

Queen of ShebaAt a recent EAC meeting, one member argued to maintain or strengthen the walk-zone preference, saying, “we should keep the walk-zone preference to not upset those many parents who think sending their kids to the neighborhood school is their right.” My friend, I may well think that I am the Queen of Sheba, but that does not make it so. And what about those many parents who think they have as much right as anyone else in Boston to get their children into a quality school? Are we concerned about upsetting them? The current assignment policy is not working for the city’s children or their families, and must be changed. Unfortunately, the change desired by the Mayor and supported by the Globe would make the situation worse, rather than better. Let’s hope that the EAC can come up with something better.

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