On last Monday night (it seems so long ago), the Parent Imperfect dragged himself to Suffolk University after work to witness the vote of the Mayor’s External Advisory Committee on a school assignment policy for Boston. My first mistake was to stop to get a sandwich on the way. I forgot that the the BPS provides its EAC with food at each of these meetings, allowing the public to descend on the leftovers after committee members have their fill. The catered offerings were much better than my foot-long.
This was a spectator sport. The EAC had allowed public comment at most of its meetings, but the 50 or so observers in the room would be muzzled this time. I could understand this…sort of. The meeting could very well have turned into a long night for the Committee, and taking comments from the floor would only extend the meeting. That said, the muzzle later became a problem for me.
The discussion has to start with the recognition that the EAC has done an important service to the community in this process. They insisted that the BPS take on the question of equitable access to education as a concern that is just as important as reducing transport costs or getting more kids going to school close to home. Neither the BPS nor City Hall started this process with that orientation. Many EAC members have devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to this process, and the committee has been open to hearing from and listening to the community at every step in the process, right up until the last one. Finally, I have to say that I know personally several people on the EAC. Ironically, three children of two EAC members were sitting in the classroom with Dear Vince on the day he began K-1 at the Rafael Hernández School, and all three of those people continue to go to school with him today. This is such a small city.
The meeting first dealt with the two critical issues that, for the EAC, stood outside of the choice of an assignment “model.” First, they voted on whether or not they would preserve a 50% walk zone preference in whatever plan they recommended. The Committee had been very divided on this issue, with some people wanting to strengthen the preference given to families living close to a given school, while others seemed ready to jettison this preference as a barrier to equity of access to the stronger schools in the system. It’s no secret that I favor the latter view.
Given that, as recently as two days before the Monday meeting, there was strong disagreement on this issue, I expected a lively discussion at this point, but, to my amazement, no discussion ensued. The head of the Data Committee of the EAC made a short prepared presentation with no visuals that I could see. She said that, over the weekend, her committee had reviewed the latest data from the BPS and, in short, the walk zone preference made little difference. It made some difference in the “Home-Based B” model, but almost none in the others under consideration. Since it made no difference, she recommended keeping it in whatever plan they recommended.
HAH? I strained at my muzzle. What data is this that we are using? Where is it? And even if it is true that the walk zone preference makes no difference, wouldn’t that be an argument for removing one more complication in the system, rather than keeping it there? An earlier version of the Parent Imperfect would have blurted this out, but this one kept quiet. Must be the maturity that comes with bad knees…
One member of the EAC questioned the data, asking if this was data that the BPS prepared using the “new processing order” that the EAC very possibly was not going to recommend. The answer came, without hesitation, that “we had the correct data from an earlier BPS presentation.” The obvious next question was whether or not the current recommendation was based on that “correct data,” or the most recent data, which used the wrong assumptions about how a walk zone preference would be implemented. That question was neither asked, nor answered, and the EAC proceeded quickly to a vote on the walk zone preference.
The effect of this presentation of data was extraordinary. A committee that had been extremely divided on this controversial issue suddenly saw a way to vote to keep the walk zone preference–something that Mayor and the BPS really wanted–without feeling as though they were limiting access to quality education for students in areas without a lot of strong schools. That it was a respected EAC member making the presentation (and not a BPS staffer) made all the difference. The committee quickly made its most important (and damaging, in my view) decision, by an almost unanimous vote, and heaved a great sigh of relief.
This, of course, is how the use of data gets a bad name. I believe that the person making the presentation believed that the data supports what she was saying–that the preservation of the policy of setting aside 50% of the seats in each BPS school for children living close to the school won’t make a meaningful difference in terms of the access of all children to quality education. Just the opposite point was made, often with great passion, by EAC members and others at EAC meeting after EAC meeting over the past 10 months. If the stronger schools were evenly distributed throughout the city, the walk zone preference would not make a big difference. But since the stronger schools are heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods, a walk zone preference, logically, will make a difference. Peng Shi of MIT, the architect of the model eventually recommended by the committee, made precisely this point in a paper summarizing his own prop0sals.
After this walk zone preference decision, everything else was somewhat anti-climactic. The EAC quickly voted to keep the current “processing order” or rules on how the walk zone preference is implemented when it comes to actually assigning children. This was a good decision, from the point of view of access to quality education. The BPS proposed a change in the processing order that would have increased the impact of the walk zone preference, even if the 50% preference stayed the same. But this change also confirmed the fact that the data used to justify the walk zone decision was not the appropriate data to be using (it was based on the proposed new order).
Then the EAC very quickly made a rapid and almost unanimous decision in favor of the “Home-Based A” model, and it was smiles and high-fives all around. All groups love the rush of coming to a difficult decision, and this had certainly been a difficult one for the EAC. People felt good that they had reached a decision that would provide “quality education, close to home.” I so wanted to join in the celebration, but simply could not.
This model will provide every family with a basket of choices based on the family’s home address. The first and strongest factor in filling this “basket” is ensuring that the family has options that are close to home. After ensuring these close-to-home options, the model takes into account the walk zone, the quality of nearby schools and the likely availability of seats in adding additional choices to the basket. Everyone will have at least 6 choices, and some families will have as many as 12 or 13 options in their basket.
For me, this was always an interesting option, but not if the walk zone preference was preserved. The parent group, QUEST (of which I am part, though the views in this blog are mine, not QUEST’s) has taken essentially the same view. In short, the model already takes geographic proximity into account in constructing each family’s basket, so by then introducing a walk zone preference on top of the “close to home” criterion used in giving people choices, we create a kind of double or triple jeopardy for people who don’t happen to live near stronger schools. We have no way of knowing how this will work when 35,000+ families make their choices, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that we’ll have significantly more kids going to school within their walk zone. For some people that will be great, for others, not so great.
In the break taken by the EAC after the decision on “Home-Based A” was taken, a public radio reporter asked me what was next for those disappointed with this decision. “What hope is there that a School Committee appointed by the Mayor will change this recommendation?” I could only say that “hope springs eternal.” There are precious few examples of the School Committee taking a position contrary to City Hall on an issue that really matters (and this one does), but all we can do is keep insisting that the right of all children to equitable access has to trump my or anyone else’s preference to get our children into the good school that happens to be close to our home. To do otherwise is to assign inequity to another generation of schoolchildren and the make our city less than it could or ought to be. Stranger things have happened…
- Opinion – Neighborhood over quality? (bostonglobe.com)
- Superintendent Johnson to adopt school assignment panel recommendation to create school quality panel (bostonnewsweekly.typepad.com)
- Committee approves a plan that would restrict choice (boston.com)
- New Boston School Assignment Plan Is Advanced (wbur.org)
- Panel Recommends Home-Based School Assignment Plan In Boston (boston.cbslocal.com)