Case Study: Should Children Attend the Closest School to Home? The New Boston Public Schools Student Assignment Plan
When critics lament the inadequacy of U.S. schools, they often wonder why the system is so complicated. Why does the U.S. spend so much more money per student than countries with much more successful education systems?
For a long time, Boston Public Schools had a plan which divided the city into three large districts, and students had to attend a school within their district. A student who lived close to the district border would be unable to attend a school just on the other side of the border, and often had to take a bus all the way across town instead. Many families found the system to be opaque and frustrating: parents didn’t really know why their children were being assigned to a particularly good or bad school.
In 2012, the city decided to abolish the old three-zone system and began asking residents what they should replace it with.
This might seem like a simple question. Why not send every student to the school closest to where they live? Or, why not allow families to choose their school, and assign students at random once the most popular schools were full? But the new plan the city chose turned out to be fairly complicated, and the heated emotions displayed during the plan’s discussion phase might explain why.
The old three-zone plan was created in 1989 by federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity as a way to end racial segregation in Boston’s schools. Opponents of racial segregation in the 1960s worked to abolish the Jim Crow system of segregation in the South, but in the North, the schools were often just as homogeneous. In Boston, as in most northern cities, neighborhoods were commonly segregated by race and schools were assigned by neighborhood. A variety of banking, real estate and social tactics prevented black people from living in the same neighborhood as white people, and students attended the closest school to where they lived, resulting in schools that were as segregated as those in the South.
The solution in Boston was to put students on a bus and make them attend school in another neighborhood. The busing system began in 1974 and was met with fierce protests. Some white parents didn’t want their children going to school with black children; others were concerned about the loss of neighborhood-focused schools. Many parents felt that a locally oriented school would stimulate more community and family participation. However, in the heat of the controversy, it was hard to separate these neighborly concerns from the racially-motivated fear of people who lived in other neighborhoods.
A quarter-century later, Boston’s schools were still very racially segregated. In the end, most white parents moved to other towns or sent their children to parochial or private schools. Today, Boston Public School’s student population is 87 percent non-white.
If the movement to end segregation has failed, some critics asked, why not return to the old model of local, neighborhood schools? For one thing, the city’s white population is still concentrated in a few neighborhoods: South Boston, Lower Mills, West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and downtown. Some observers were concerned that strict localism would result in the best schools being isolated in these neighborhoods. Furthermore, many residents were worried about the geography of school quality: what should parents do if there aren’t any good schools at all in their neighborhood? The residents that were furthest from good schools were usually poor, Black and Latino.
However, allowing families to choose their schools could also lead to concentrated inequality. The parents who cared the most about their children’s education would push the hardest to get them into the best schools, so that children with unengaged parents would be concentrated elsewhere, in a self-reinforcing cycle. On the other hand, many residents said they preferred choosing their schools so that children with special needs—like English language learners or children with learning disabilities—could get schools with the proper resources.
After listening at length to the community’s concerns, the school department found that most parents want local schools but also want to be able to choose a quality option. But how could these priorities be combined? What if a parent wants to choose a distant school, or if there are no good options nearby? An MIT PhD candidate who had been attending the meetings, Peng Shi, suggested a formula that accounted for distance, choice, and school quality. In Shi’s proposal, which the school system ultimately adopted, parents are given a selection of nearby options, of which at least a few must meet a certain standard of quality.
While this compromise was not perfect, the school department hoped it would end the absurdity of busing students from one end of town to the other, without making the system any more segregated and also allowing for some family choice and flexibility. The details of the system were eventually fleshed out. Parents of incoming students would be allowed to choose from a list of at least six schools within a one-mile radius of where they live, of which two must be high performing and an additional two must be above average. If there aren’t enough schools that meet this criteria within a mile, then the nearest qualified schools would be added to the list. Also, several citywide schools (such as charter schools) would be available to all parents.
There were several other exceptions. For example, siblings would have priority to go to the same school, and English Language Learners and students with disabilities would have special options. Students in East Boston, a geographically isolated area, would be guaranteed a seat in their neighborhood. Ultimately, some families might have a dozen options or more. Additionally, students would be allowed to keep attending their old schools. The new assignment system only applied to elementary schools; high schools remained citywide.
The new plan generated controversy on all sides. The school department’s community meetings were constantly picketed by protestors who denounced the new plan as racist, arguing that the plan was too local and would increase segregation. Some of the sharpest accusations came from protestors affiliated with the city’s school bus driver’s union, who stood to lose financially from a more local system.
One article in a scholarly journal went so far as to say the new plan was “pandering” to privileged families in Boston, trying to woo them back to the public school system with promises of convenient, neighborhood-oriented schools.
In a cautious defense of the new plan, Boston Globe editor Farah Stockman questioned whether the obsession with desegregation-at-all-costs might be misplaced. After all, she asked, do Black and Latino students really need a certain quota of White students on hand in order to succeed? She pointed to the successful Brooke Mattapan Charter School, whose student body is 99 percent non-white.
City Councilor John Connolly, who was a mayoral candidate that year, condemned the new plan for not being local enough:
This was our opportunity to bring quality to every single school and offer every child a guaranteed seat at a school close to home. Instead, BPS replaced the current convoluted school lottery with a different convoluted school lottery….It is cruel to call this bold reform when too many children will be left on waitlists, without quality choices, and without a seat at a school close to their home….People are being sold a bill of goods here. Most families will have at least 10 choices under this new system, but no priority for the choices that are closest to where they live.
Connolly was right that many parents found the new system confusing. The Boston Globe reported that:
A top concern among parents was the same one expressed under the previous system—having a lottery determine whether their child gets a seat at any of the schools you requested. Failure to secure a seat often means parents have to submit a new set of choices for a subsequent round of the lottery. Some parents, fed up with the uncertainty of the lottery, move out the city.
That article described one parent who had her heart set on a certain school, but was informed it was too far away and wasn’t on her list. Another parent expressed frustration with the quality of her local options:
“How will this new system benefit kids in my neighborhood? It would not,” said Odette Williamson, a Hyde Park parent, noting that most schools near her home are low-performing. “The plan is not simpler, more transparent, or predictable than what we have right now.”
To combat this confusion, the school department rolled out an extensive advertising campaign to educate families about the new plan. The campaign’s director, Denise Snyder, was optimistic, saying, “The confusion is less than what I anticipated. I was really nervous going into this, and I was preparing the team for difficult conversations.”
One of the new assignment plan’s chief architects, Hardin Coleman, who is dean of the Boston University School of Education, admitted that the plan isn’t great for every family:
I won’t say everyone does better. In the old system, there was a huge inequity in access. What this system does is improve access to quality for those who had low access. To make things more equitable, someone had to lose some resources….We had to find a way to even the playing field, to make sure that every family has equal access. Until you can guarantee access, you’re not making a change.
Coleman said that the main argument against the new plan was that the school system should spend its time improving school quality instead. He admits that school quality remains the big bottleneck: if there aren’t enough good schools to go around, then someone’s inevitably going to have to go to a bad school.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- With what interest or questions did you come to this Case Study? Have you found it a fairly clear picture of educational complexity at the local level? Is it somewhat applicable to cities besides Boston?
- How far from home did you go to school, and were your classmates all from the same neighborhood? How did this affect your school and neighborhood’s culture?
- Do you think it fosters community engagement for children to go to a local school? Do you think it’s good for children to go to school with people from other parts of town, who may be different from them? Which of these two concerns do you think is more important?
- What do you think of the new Boston school assignment plan? Does it seem needlessly complicated, or is its complexity justified? Does the plan seem equitable to you?
- Some parents of the most disadvantaged and educationally needy children may be most difficult to question and bring into collaboration. Bus drivers’ unions (mentioned here) and teachers’ unions may have priorities that do not agree with radical reform. The case for charter schools, as models for public school reform is a matter beyond the sphere of this Case Study.
- The education of children is one of the most important tasks for society, and an engaged public will likely have strong opinions about how to set up the education system. Education reform is therefore, at best, extremely controversial and complicated.
- In Boston, a legacy of racism led to a convoluted system where students were bused across the city at great expense in order to prevent segregation, yet the system remained very segregated. A lengthy process of community input led to a new system that was also very complicated, but, supporters hope, may be more equitable and financially sensible.
- Ultimately, school assignment is a problem of deciding who winds up having to go to the worst schools. The system will only be fair for every family when every school is able to provide a good education.
© 2017 CYS
Meira Levinson (2013, March). “The Ethics of Pandering in Boston Public Schools’ School Assignment Plan.” Theory and Research in Education.
Rebeca Oliveira and John Ruch (2013, March 14). “School assignment plan approved.” Jamaica Plain Gazette.
Christina Quinn (2013, March 14). “MIT Algorithm Powers New Boston School Assignment Plan.” WGBH News.
Katharine Q Seelye (2013, March 12). “No Division Required in This School Problem.” New York Times.
Susan Seligson (2013, March 26). “Boston School Assignment Plan Marks New Era.” BU Today.
Farah Stockman (2015, July 1). “Facing segregation again, Boston’s public schools get a do-over.” Boston Globe.
Farah Stockman (2015, Oct. 8). “In schools, can separate be equal?” The Boston Globe.
James Vaznis (2013, March 13). “Boston adopts new school assignment plan.” Boston Globe.
James Vaznis (2013, Nov. 4). “Publicity push for new Boston schools plan.” Boston Globe.
James Vaznis (2014, Jan. 27). “Boston parents acclimate to school choice system.” Boston Globe.