Some Thoughts on Boston’s School Assignment Plans

Boston is in the throws of potentially reconfiguring its school assignment program. One of the things that has not completely crushed Boston’s middle class or made real estate prices completely ridiculous is the city’s lottery system: over a broad geographic area, students are randomly assigned to schools (students can choose schools; if there is a excess of students, students are randomly selected). While this means students sometimes (or often) do not attend local schools, this has the advantage of giving some middle class and poor students access to higher quality schools than they otherwise would have. It also helps keep real estate prices somewhat less ridiculous: if students only went to neighborhood schools, the few schools serving wealthy areas (e.g., Beacon Hill, Back Bay) would be very desirable driving housing prices even higher, while crushing prices in other neighborhoods. In addition, the middle class (and upper-middle class) wouldn’t be able to ‘compete’ for ‘good’ schools (that is, schools with affluent students), and would leave the city. This isn’t conjecture: it’s happened in most cities during the last several decades (anyone who is seriously considering the local school plan is being short-sighted and a fucking moron to boot).

Currently, there are five proposed plans: attending local schools, six, nine, eleven, or twenty three zones. For all intents and purposes, the twenty three zone plan isn’t different than the local school plan. From what I’m hearing, neither the local or twenty three zone plan seems to have a lot of political support. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has released a report (downloads here) evaluating what each of these plans (except for the local school proposal) would mean (boldface mine):

The research group, led by Associate Professor Meira Levinson in cooperation with a team of HGSE doctoral students and Assistant Professor Jal Mehta, note that their analysis indicates that currently only 20 percent of BPS primary school students are enrolled in high quality zoned schools. Access to these schools is unequally distributed with twice as many students in the West Zone having access to high quality schools compared with students in the East Zone. Additionally, more than one-third of white and Asian children are enrolled in high quality primary schools while barely 1 in 10 black children and 1 in 5 Hispanic children are enrolled in such schools.

“The five school assignment proposals put forward by BPS last Monday night make access to high quality schools even more inequitable. Under the six-zone plan, 35 percent of the seats in Zone 6 are high quality, whereas only 5 percent of the seats in Zone 3 are high quality,” notes Levinson. “This means students in Zone 6 have seven times the access to high quality seats as students in Zone 3. Disparities get even worse under the other plans: a full third of the zones in the nine-zone plan have under 10 percent high quality seats, and over half the zones in the 23-zone plan have no high quality seats whatsoever.”

The six zone plan is unfortunately the best though: Mission Hill, the South End, and Southie get hammered, but at least the other zones do well. Not surprising: we talk a good game about equality of opportunity, but rarely practice it.

Of course, the underlying problem–and one that no plan will solve–is that 67 percent of Boston students are low-income. As I’ve noted before, there’s no way to have good educational outcomes with that demographic burden. At best, one can try to optimally shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic. Until we stop treating cities as warehouses for the poor, and allow them to move to other areas (in other words, relax housing regulations that essentially ‘zone out’ the poor), Bostonians will be pitted against one another.

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