So what changes should we make? There’s a constituency that wants to scrap our entire assignment system and revert to “neighborhood schools.” Just like in the suburbs, students would be assigned to schools based on their address. Kids from J.P. would go to schools in J.P., South End in the South End. The major problem with that approach is that BPS schools vary widely in quality, meaning you’d be punishing students who live in areas without access to high-quality schools. There are also not nearly enough classroom seats in certain areas with large numbers of students (like Dorchester), meaning BPS would have to build more schools or bus some students to neighboring areas.
So a full-on neighborhood system isn’t practical or politically possible. But it’s clear that we do need to move beyond our costly three-zone system. In 2004, with the support of the mayor, superintendent, and school committee, the Student Assignment Task Force solicited public opinion on changes to the current arrangement. A majority of that group proposed the creation of six elementary school zones across the city. The benefit of more, and smaller, zones was clear: Buses would need to drive fewer miles, which would save both time and money. But no political consensus emerged on the matter, and the whole thing fell flat.
The subject lay largely dormant until Menino’s 2008 State of the City address. “I believe that we can rethink our school-assignment zones,” he said at the time, “continue providing children in every neighborhood with access to high-performing schools, and save up to $10 million of transportation costs.” The following year, BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson proposed a five-zone plan for elementary and middle schools. But a public backlash arose — much of it focused on concerns about resegregation and the concentration of low-performing schools in particular zones — and Johnson quickly abandoned the idea. She continues to talk about the issue, though, pledging vague “changes to school choice” for the 2013–2014 school year. Last month, Menino once again raised the issue in his State of the City address, promising a “radically different assignment plan — one that puts a priority on children attending schools close to their homes.” Nice words, but the specifics of this newest plan have yet to be released.
The fact is, the Student Assignment Task Force majority had it right back in 2004, when it recommended six medium-size zones. That would greatly reduce busing expenses while allowing for continued access to a broad choice of good schools. Now we just need to figure out how to get that plan implemented.
THE ANSWER, OF COURSE, Mayor Menino. He is the alpha and omega of political reform in this city — of political anything, really. Having dominated in the past few elections, he’s politically unassailable. He’s also well liked by people living in minority communities, who are understandably reluctant to embrace any new top-down initiatives after decades of “reform” that have only resulted in persistent underperformance in many schools. Unlike the last time there was an attempt to increase the number of zones, a hands-on, vocal Menino can be the difference.
Despite all the benefits from a newly zoned system, some parents will remain skeptical of any reduction in choice. If Johnson and Menino want to sell the new plan, they need to introduce parents and students to all the options, including charters and less well-tested models like pilot, innovation, and turnaround schools. If they aggressively promote the education choices available, they just might be able to temper the justifiable concerns about the smaller zones.
Of course, changing up the zones doesn’t mean BPS can dial back any focus on improving poor-performing schools. Every school needs to be better, and zone reform can help achieve that goal, too. Instead of on buses, we’d be able to spend money where it actually matters: on education. And maybe we could even get our kids to school on time.