Friday, January 18, 2008

Mayor Menino Reopens School Assignment Process

In his State of the City Address this week, much of the attention has been focused on Mayor Thomas Menino's newfound effort to take on the firefighter's union in the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.

Buried at the end of the Boston Globe article, however, was a nugget from a different topic altogether: the Mayor wants to revisit the school assignment process within the Boston Public Schools.

This is no small issue. School assignment was at the heart of the Boston busing wars of the 1970s that lead to federal court intervention in 1974 and a mandatory busing program in 1975. It is a charged issue, because reverting to "neighborhood schools" could potentially pit neighborhoods with better-performing schools against those with worse-performing schools

Current Three-Zone Model for School Assignment

Boston Public Schools is no longer under federal court oversight over its school assignment policy. In 2000, BPS modified its assignment program so that 50% of all seats in schools would be set aside in the first round of school assignment for students living within the walk-zone, which is a one-mile radius for elementary schools and one-and-a-half mile radius for middle schools. (High schools are all city-wide.)

The other 50% would be filled by a lottery within each of three school zones: North Zone (Allston-Brighton, Back Bay, Charlestown, downtown, and East Boston), East Zone (Hyde Park, Dorchester, Mattapan, and South Boston), and West Zone (Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and West Roxbury). The zones were setup in 1988 and rolled out in 1989, as BPS was phasing out court-oversight, a way that ensured overall diversity in the school population within each zone, although there is substantial variation in, for example, ethnicity and economic status across each zone.

Since 2000, BPS has not used ethnicity in the school assignment process. The U.S. District Court ruled in 2003 that these three zones are no longer being used in order to provide racial balancing among them. The three-zone structure remains, however, and contains elongated zones that cause many children to have long bus rides. Trying to make those zones more compact in order to minimize bus usage and travel times is the point of the Mayor's initiative.

Six-Zone Models Examined in 2004

Back in 2004, the city tried revisiting the school assignment policy, but failed to come to a consensus on a plan. It is likely that many of the proposals put forward in 2004 will be raised again now in 2008, so it is worthwhile to take a look back at them.

The report of the Student Assignment Task Force on September 22, 2004 said:
Although the Task Force could not reach full consensus on the appropriate number and configuration of assignment zones, a majority of the group recommends that the current three-zone structure be replaced by a six-zone elementary and three-zone middle school structure, delineating a "primary" and "secondary" zone of school choices for every family.
The problems the task force found in the six-zone models, however, was more fundamental. There is an invisible vertical (actually north-northeast to south-southwest) line bisecting the city, where the schools on the western side outperform those on the eastern side in nearly all of the quality indicators they inspected. Three better performing zones result on the east, and three worse-performing schools on the west, in those six zone models. That invisible line is one key factor that led to the elongated structure of the three zones in the current model.

The task force preferred the idea where there were secondary zones matched to the first, with some choice allowed across those boundaries. It seems like the only way that equity could be achieved would be to pair primary and secondary zones that cross the vertical invisible line: Zones 1 and 3 are paired, 2 and 4, and 5 and 6:

In the six-zone model, Allston-Brighton has a "primary" zone 2 along with Fenway/Kenmore and Jamaica Plain; A-B's zone 2 is then paired up as having a "secondary" zone 4 consisting of Roxbury and South Dorchester.

These primary-secondary zone pairings create combined zone structures that look to me as every bit as unwieldly as the three-zone structure. Parents near Brighton Center may still have lots of schools to choose from, but their most distant options are now in South Dorchester instead of Charlestown or East Boston -- basically, just as far away. You might save a few bucks overall on gasoline for the buses, but it will only a few bucks because there will still be some very significant bus rides. The Globe story quotes the Mayor as wanting to cut up to $10 million from the $40 million (current) to $60 million (in five years) expenditures on busing.

The Mayor will find a hard time re-jiggering zones like these without creating newer, smaller zones that show increased disparity among them in the school performance indicators.

Walk Zone Preference and Neighborhood Schools

Modifying the walk zone preference percentage could very well be a another approach to school assignment reform also explored by the Mayor in his new initiative.

The School Committee has tweaked walk zone preference repeatedly over the last two decades. The 1990 K-12 rollout of the three-zone model increased walk zone preference from 50 to 75%. Variations of the walk zone preference were allowed to vary somewhat from school to school in 1996 based on changes to the waiting list policy, which resulted in some schools having 100% of students from the walk zone, i.e., a fully "neighborhood school" for those cases. The walk zone preference was reduced back to 50% in 2000, which is its present structure.

Back in October 2007, I posed a written question to the City Councilor-At-Large candidates regarding school choice:
Some people have proposed that the BPS return to “neighborhood” or “community” schools. Do you support such a proposal? How would such a move impact the achievement gap?
The answers, even pared down to those who won election, varied significantly. Councilor John Connolly gave clear support for the neighborhood school model. Councilor Sam Yoon gave his support for it only if "every school aged child in every neighborhood has access to a quality school", which he also said is a criterion not currently satisfied. Councilor Michael Flaherty appreciated the idea of community schools but considered it "unrealistic and socially reckless to go to 100% neighborhood schools overnight."

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