Sunday, November 1, 2009

BOSTON | More than three decades after a federal court order forced Boston to desegregate schools by busing black students to white neighborhoods and whites to black areas, the birthplace of public education is still fighting the battle.

But the lines no longer pit race against race, with 87 percent of the student body now minorities.

Now the city is wrestling with school-choice issues and an antiquated busing system that can send a lone student on a bus ride across the city. And the more the Boston Public Schools system assigns students to neighborhood schools, rather than bus them across town, the more likely it is that children in the poorest neighborhoods will go to the worst-performing schools.

Boston schools still let parents pick schools, but only within three enormous and controversial geographical zones. Buses carting only one student often crisscross the city - contributing to next year’s nearly $80 million transportation budget at a time when the district faces a projected $100 million budget shortfall.

Proposals to replace the 20-year-old school-assignment zones with five smaller ones fizzled twice this decade, most recently in June. And while the city secured federal funding this month to take another stab at overhauling its busing system, the issue remains a political hot potato that is not among the talking points of either mayoral candidate.

“And they won’t talk about it because it’s very divisive,” said Myriam Ortiz, executive director of Boston Parent Organizing Network, which successfully argued that Boston Public Schools’ recent proposal to return to neighborhood schools drastically decreased access to quality schools for the city’s poorest students, “because communities where better schools are located could care less about the communities where the underperforming schools are located.”

“I know this for a fact. A few months ago, we heard parents testifying that their schools should not receive budget cuts because their schools perform better. They said, ‘The schools that are not performing, budget cuts should be their punishment.’ ”

At a recent debate, Mayor Thomas M. Menino had his performance on education graded by his opponent - City Council member Michael F. Flaherty Jr., who gave him an “F” - and by himself. He said he’d grade himself “maybe a B-plus, no, a B. I’ll be generous.”

The two men sparred over the mayor’s record: “We boast of having the best colleges and universities in the world, yet children who actually do graduate from Boston Public Schools will never get an opportunity to compete,” the mayor’s 40-year-old challenger said. Each man slung around statistics on dropouts, but neither addressed the educational elephant in the auditorium at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: busing.

Mr. Menino, who called for the abolition of busing in his 2008 State of the City Address, could not be reached for comment for this report.

During a phone interview, Mr. Flaherty, a proponent of neighborhood schools who said he recently realized the need to focus initially on improving school quality, did address busing frankly.

“The city has a long history with the subject; at the same time, things have changed tremendously,” said Mr. Flaherty, who was born five years before the 1974 forced-busing ruling. “We need to be sensitive to the issue and recognize the past. I’ve seen Boston at its best and at its very worst. To dismiss and discount the past is shortsighted. We need to put all the issues on the table.

“The discussion around school assignment can be polarizing already. With that said, maybe we do need to have a frank discussion about race in Boston, where we came from and where we are now before we embark on this particular issue.”

While Boston’s third attempt to rewrite its school-assignment plan since 2004 has gone untouched this political season, Washington has taken notice.

On Oct. 1, 35 years after the now-deceased federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled that Boston Public Schools practiced de facto segregation, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Boston a $241,680 grant.

The Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans grant is designed to help school districts reconcile long-term effects of busing by studying the practices of cities nationwide. The 11 districts awarded the grant have 12 to 24 months to use the funds and cast wide nets in reaching out to school-assignment experts and civil rights activists.

For the Boston Public Schools system - which has 72 percent of its students eligible for subsidized free and reduced-price meals - the challenge is deflating a bloated transportation budget without impeding access to the city’s best schools.

Superintendent Carol Johnson shelved her five-zone plan in June after it was revealed that the majority of the district’s underperforming schools were concentrated in the two zones populated by the city’s poorest residents.

Parents in those two zones were irate after learning they wouldn’t have equal access to bilingual and special education.

“We are pleased about the grant; it will help propel us further and faster,” Ms. Johnson said by phone. “But even if we had not gotten the grant, we are committed to making changes to improve the quality of schools in Boston.”

While BPS abolished race-based school assignment in 1999, the district currently conducts a school-choice lottery, in which students apply to elementary and middle schools within their zone of residence. They can apply to schools outside their zone as long as they are within walking distance of their home. High schools are accessible citywide.

Ms. Johnson was widely applauded for tossing out her five-zone plan this summer. But even after she announced in August that she was applying for federal money to aid her new efforts, skepticism remained widespread.

“I don’t believe they’re going back to the drawing board,” said Carlos Henriquez, a City Council candidate who says 10 out of 11 elementary schools in his predominantly black and Hispanic district chronically underperform. “They are waiting until November 3 is over, then they’ll propose a plan that convinces nobody.” Election Day is Nov. 3.

In 2004, before Ms. Johnson’s tenure began, a similar school-assignment proposal also failed. Just as they did this summer, community organizers and parents argued that the district should improve underperforming schools before addressing transportation woes.

While Ms. Johnson says BPS can simultaneously work toward improving poor schools and ending busing, Mr. Henriquez said presenting a school-assignment plan would be much easier once all schools performed equally.

“They can quickly throw together a transportation plan,” the 32-year-old said, “but no one can put together how to improve 10 of 11 schools.”

In 2008, state officials deemed 100 of 143 schools “in need of improvement” before Ms. Johnson closed or consolidated chronically inadequate schools. About three-quarters of the city’s 135 schools underperform today, but Ms. Johnson has increased the number of seats in well-performing schools.

“I think we have some evidence that we made some improvement,” Ms. Johnson said. “I also think that since some parents feel they didn’t get any of their top three [school choices], they still want us to make sure we address that issue. Yes, some people will feel better about the school their child is in, but not everyone is satisfied. That’s why it’s important for us to have the grant. We need to think about all the different ways to have a choice system.”

While busing battles in Seattle and Louisville played out in the Supreme Court two years ago, Boston has hashed out school-assignment debates hyper-locally in church basements, school cafeterias and auditoriums.

And while the Supreme Court ultimately limited the role race can play in determining student assignment, in Boston the issue is not especially racial, since only 9 percent of public-school students are white, compared with 39 percent black and 37 percent Hispanic.

The battle in Boston pits those trying to preserve access to quality schools, as well as the English language and special education, versus those lobbying for a return to neighborhood schools.

East Boston resident Gloribell Mota wasn’t satisfied with the middle schools in her predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood a few years ago. So her son traveled 1 1/2 hours by bus each way to attend a better school.

Ms. Mota credits that decision for helping him test into Boston Latin School, the jewel of the district and the nation’s oldest public school, founded in 1635. But leaving the neighborhood to attend middle school wasn’t easy.

“It wasn’t like he could stay after school with his friends hanging out, it was straight home an hour and a half on the bus,” said Ms. Mota, whose daughter is in kindergarten. “I want to make sure she has those options as well.

“Until BPS takes a structural look at some of the schools, parents will continue to oppose [a new busing plan]. They want quality schools in the neighborhoods.”

Ms. Mota recently walked a few blocks from her home to attend her daughter’s parent-teacher conferences and acknowledged that neighborhood schools can foster community and parent involvement.

When defending her school-assignment proposal last winter, Ms. Johnson said the geographical districts reflected parents’ desires to choose schools closer to home.

Neighborhood schools, however, are not a silver bullet. The Orchard Gardens Pilot School sets aside 75 percent of its seats for students within walking distance of the school in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, but Mr. Henriquez notes that it still underperforms.

Ms. Johnson said she understands why parents are pushing so hard for high quality, but added that the debate can sometimes get sidetracked by focusing too much on transportation and school choice.

“I do sometimes think we lose track of what the core of our work in schools is,” Ms. Johnson said. “The core business of schools is about student achievement. That is what this is about. We have to keep making sure we ask questions that drive the agenda toward student achievement and student success, as opposed to focusing solely on choice.

“Parents do want choice, but to what end?”

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