The Egalitarianism of Boston’s School Assignment Program: No Immunity to Chance

Recently, I wrote about Boston’s new school assignment program. Before getting into either the coverage or the radicalism of the plan (and I mean that in a good way), it’s worth summarizing how the program works.

Right now, Boston schools are a lottery. You’re given a list of schools you could attend, and you choose your preferences. For your first choice, you’re entered into the drum along with all of the other students who want to attend. If chosen at random (this assumes more students than slots), you go there. If not, then you’re placed into the drum for your second choice school and so on.

What the argument over different plans is really about is the list of schools from which will you get to choose. Originally, all of the plans, including the one currently used in Boston, divided Boston into geographic zones, and you could choose among the schools in your zone. People weren’t happy because the zones were quite large and students had to travel long distances. However, other zone plans were ridiculous, such as the 23 zone plan which basically meant you attend your neighborhood school–poor students would never get to attend ‘good’ schools. As you might imagine, people spent a lot of time arguing about which schools were included in zones with good schools. The new program gets rid of the zones and ensures that every student will have a shot at two ‘good’ schools regardless of where they live–that is to say, how wealthy his or her family is (although, as I noted previously, the devil is in the details of defining good schools and so on).

What was bizarre in the NY Times story is how reporter Katherine Seelye covered it (though given her atrocious coverage of the 2000 campaign, maybe this isn’t surprising). Seelye portrayed it as the last gasp of Boston’s tribal conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s. Those days are long gone: the white people who favored their tribe over their city already fled. That’s not to say no racists remain–there are assholes and they walk among us. But this is not about race, it’s about class.

A recent mailer from a bottom-feeding real estate agent gets at this:

Coinciding with the timing of lottery results, I found the following mailer from a Westwood real estate agent in my mailbox:

westwood realtor card

The front of the postcard has a photo of a big house and says “Location, Location, Location, Education, Education, Education.”

What is infuriating to some parents (who are disproportionately white, but I don’t think racial animus really is playing much of a role here) is that they have made all the right moves. They went to the right schools, got the right jobs, bought a house in the right neighborhood. But now, due to the capriciousness of random chance, they might not be able to send their kids to the right school. That sort of thing happens to other people, not them. People like lower-middle class single mothers. Somehow in a city where 68 percent of students qualify for lunch assistance, the right people are supposed to be insulated against the vicissitudes of chance and misfortune.

The sad thing is that Seelye missed the real story–a damn explosive story-about class, about how some people believe that they don’t have to experience life like other people. Of course, given the NY Times‘ demographic, that omission might be a convenient misunderstanding. Wouldn’t want to upset the target demographic for advertisers.

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1 Response to The Egalitarianism of Boston’s School Assignment Program: No Immunity to Chance

  1. ferniglab says:

    Try the UK’s Academy system for high schools. On paper very smart. Kids take and exam and are then banded into 5 equal sized ability groups. Schools can cream off 10-12 kids from the top on one specific skill (maths, language, music, etc) and the rest as a random selection from each ability group.

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