Thoughts on Boston’s School Assignment Proposal

The NY Times has a story about Boston’s new assignment choice proposal, something I’ve discussed previously. Before we get to that, I noticed whenever Katharine Seelye writes about this, she refers back to the school desegregation battles of the 1970s and early 1980s. Those days are long gone–the current concerns are about the cost and time of busing. This is a pretty good summary of the plan:

It went through several iterations. The final one gives families a list of at least six schools starting with the two closest high-quality schools, then the next two closest of at least medium quality.

Last month, after a year of study and more than 70 community meetings, the advisory committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the Boston School Committee adopt Mr. Shi’s model. The school committee was planning to vote on it Wednesday night…

A controversial element of the plan is the “walk zone priority,” which gives preference to students living within walking distance of a school.

Research by Dr. Pathak and Dr. Sonmez shows that the walk-zone priority does not actually give much of an advantage to students living nearby. But Mr. Shi’s original proposal had no walk zone, and he said in an interview that he personally saw no reason for it; it was added in later.

This seems like a vast improvement over the previous proposals, but I think the devil will be in the details. First, how will schools be ranked as good, medium, etc.? Depending on the cutoff, good schools could actually include some mediocre ones, and these might be the only ones accessible to poor students.

Second, how often will schools be reevaluated/reclassified? While bouncing around from year to year would be bad, there has to be a reassessment, so that certain ‘medium’ school that are geographically clustered in non-poor areas don’t become de facto good schools.

Finally, it still seems that spatial–and thus socioeconomic–segregation could occur. Just based on the distribution of schools, I could imagine the development of white, upper-middle class enclaves (e.g., parts of Jamaica Plain aren’t really near other schools, and are buffered by middle class neighborhoods). Conceivably, areas near Back Bay and Beacon Hill could also be similarly affected. Killing the “walk zone” would help ensure this wouldn’t happen [Added: This was killed]. A saving grace of the current system–and not to be downplayed–is that it prevents housing prices from spiraling even more out of control in affluent neighborhoods while preventing their collapse in middle class and poor neighborhoods, since where you live isn’t tightly linked with the quality of education (as is the case in most other cities, to their great detriment economically and educationally). To prevent this from happening, a really close watch will have to be kept on how this system would play out.

Seems promising though.

Added: Mayoral hopeful John Connolly hates the plan. From day one, he has clearly been targeting his campaign towards the upper-middle class vote by supporting de facto educational segregation, which would have severe educational and economic effects. Something to keep in mind come election day.

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Boston’s School Assignment Proposal

  1. mrtoads says:

    Ah, so Kit Seelye is still getting published, eh? What an embarrassment to the idea of “journalism” she has been over the years, but perhaps she has become less inclined to simply lazily trot out the popular story, and more to doing real reporting.

  2. Cheri says:

    I think that areas along in West Roxbury and JP that boarder Brookline could see a rise in property prices because some quality schools in this area will essentially only be accessable to those in that area because of their distance from poorer sections of the city. Just testing some street addresses in this area show some streets having 4 Tier One schools, 2 Tier Two schools and only one failing school for capacity reasons. I think based on this houses in this area may go up in value.

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