Bus Stop

By Steve Poftak | Boston Magazine |

BACK IN OCTOBER, Mayor Menino and Boston parents were outraged when a school committee hearing revealed that 25 percent of school buses were delivering students late to school. A large number of our kids weren’t making it to class on time, not because they were goofing off, but because their school-provided system of transportation wasn’t getting them there. Most of the blame was placed on problems with a new GPS system on buses, but that obscures a more-fundamental issue: This city’s school-assignment system is so complex — involving a spider web of stops and routes spun all across town — that even Mario Andretti couldn’t get a bus to school on time.

[sidebar]Most communities, especially suburbs, assign their students to a particular school based on one thing: a kid’s street address. BPS, though, has divided the city into three enormous zones — North, West, and East. The East Zone, for example, extends from Hyde Park to South Boston, and includes more than 25 elementary and K–8 schools. Your child can take part in a lottery to enter any one of them. (High schools aren’t placed in zones — they’re citywide.) It’s true that if choice is the sole priority, the system is great: Kids can bypass a lousy neighborhood school in favor of a better program on the other side of their zone or, in some cases, across town. The problem, though, is that providing that choice translates into huge transportation costs — and long bus rides.

BPS spends roughly $80 million per year, or nearly  10 percent of its overall budget, on transportation. And that number is projected to eclipse $100 million by the 2015 fiscal year. Then there are the nonmonetary costs — late arrivals, less time for homework and extracurriculars, and just the fact that it’s harder for parents to be involved in the schools their kids attend.

Educational choice is important, but there’s a balance to be struck between offering it and creating a system of such complexity that it needlessly drains resources. Dividing a traffic-jammed city of almost 50 square miles into just three zones and expecting buses to arrive on time is a dicey proposition, one that’s left us spending a disproportionate amount of education dollars on buses, not classrooms.

history, of course, and the related topic of race that make people leery of getting into the whole school-assignment issue. The court-mandated busing of the ’70s came with ugly riots and violence that cast the whole city in a bad light. Any suggestion of changing the school-assignment system understandably stokes fears of a resegregation of our schools. But here’s the thing — resegregation simply isn’t going to happen. Consider the numbers: In 1970 BPS had close to 97,000 students, and 64 percent of them were white. By 2010, only 56,000 students were in the system, and just 13 percent of them were white. And out of more than 125 schools today, only three are majority white. The potential for resegregation should be monitored, but it shouldn’t drive our current decision-making.

Illustration by Shout