THE FINDINGS OF the recent Boston Area Research Initiative report on equity in the Boston Public Schools assignment plan – the Home Based Assignment plan – were for the most part not too shocking for anyone who has followed school assignment politics in Boston for the past five years. The report finds, in short, “that equal access to quality closer to home” is an oxymoron in a city where “quality schools” are not evenly distributed geographically across racially segregated neighborhoods. In other words, school assignment can’t fix the problems we have with school quality in the city.
This is not surprising because it was in many ways a refrain of both proponents and opponents of the student assignment reform process as it was occurring in 2012-2013. Before any new system was even proposed, many community members – parents, young people, long-time community advocates – came to engagement sessions held by the city and the Boston Public Schools to ask that the city drop the focus on student assignment in favor of a long-promised and never delivered focus on increasing the quality of schools specifically for low-income students of color in their neighborhoods.
Proponents of the process – the mayor, the superintendent and school department staff, and the External Advisory Committee (EAC) tasked with recommending a policy — didn’t necessarily argue with this point. Instead, they explained, reforming student assignment was necessary, and that school quality improvements would follow. Why was reform necessary? The three-zone system that had been in place was broken, and fixing it would solve any number of problems, including reducing student travel time, cutting spiraling transportation costs, simplifying a system parents found too complex, and allowing for more neighborhood cohesion around schools. Then we could really tackle measuring school quality and raising quality across the system. Community members countered that quality has been promised time and again, and that the only change that was certain from this system was increased racial segregation.
Fast forward four years and we are exactly where community members predicted we would be. The overdue analysis of the Home Based Assignment Plan has shown that the new school assignment process has, at best, done nothing to address the inequities that existed under the three-zone plan we had before. Nor has it simplified anything, reduced transportation costs significantly, or created neighborhood cohesion around schools. It has reduced some travel time. And, most alarmingly, it has increased racial segregation in our schools.
Being able to say “we told you so” is cold comfort to many of the community members who knew this is what would happen and didn’t need a costly report to tell them so. What Boston does need is accountability. Accountability for a waste of time and resources. Accountability for failing to heed community voice. Accountability for 60-plus years of broken promises to address systemic racism in our allotment of educational resources. Accountability for being four years out from this plan and being no closer even to a solid measure for school quality that extends beyond problematic test scores, never mind a systematic plan to address inequities.
Where might we find this accountability? A good place to start would be with some of the people who approved this plan five years ago and are still part of running our schools today.
Michael O’Neill, the school committee member who was at the time its chairman, instead seemed desperate at the recent School Committee meeting where the report was presented, along with many of the other committee members, to punt the problem away from the schools in general and the school committee in particular. Is it safe to quote you, he asked Dan O’Brien of the Boston Area Research Initiative, that “the inequities we are seeing are not a result of the system?” O’Brien’s answer was that it wasn’t quite so simple.
Nonetheless, O’Neill and several other school committee members repeatedly emphasized the point that the Home Based Assignment Plan hadn’t created the problem. Miren Uriarte, on the other hand, who was a member of the committee that approved the plan and is now a school committee member, was the only member that seemed to grapple with the full implications of the report and the segregation findings. She expressed the “pain” with which she read the report and acknowledging her role as a committee member in approving this system. Uriarte stood out as a glimmer of what the first step in accountability might look like – admitting a harm, and taking responsibility for it, which must of course be followed by action.
Interim superintendent Laura Perille was also an EAC member approving this plan, but she seemed to take the opposite approach from Uriarte, instead saying very little about the plan and nothing about the segregation findings. This lack of even rhetorical leadership around this issue would be hard to imagine from either of our immediate past superintendents, Carol Johnson or Tommy Chang, and did not bode well for the leadership we need (and deserve) on the issue of segregation and racism in public schooling in the coming years.
As was frequently noted by school committee members, BPS can’t control where people choose to live in the city (a frequent refrain during the 1970s desegregation years as well). They can, however, take an active interest in addressing what is under their control, providing clear leadership and guidance about the problems that accompany school segregation and seeking to ask some of the pressing questions that follow from this report:
- How much do test scores measure school quality and how much do they measure racial biases in standardized testing and/or economic privilege/disadvantage? How can we get a fuller view of access to school quality, particularly for students of color.
- Are resources (including experienced teaching staff/school leadership, facilities, grants and other raised funds) disproportionately distributed? What impact is concentrating economic and racial privilege having on the system?
- Do we as a city value integrated schools, and if so what measures can we take to achieve them?
These are just some of the questions raised that Superintendent Perille, after acknowledging her own responsibility in the current state of affairs, could address – I’m sure our community of parents, students, teachers, and advocates will come up with many more. Nonetheless, anything less than clear leadership on this issue is a tacit endorsement of segregationist policy and systemic racism and not what we need in a superintendent for any length of time.
Meghan Doran, PhD, is a Boston Public Schools graduate and parent. She closely followed the student assignment policy reform process as an organizer for the Boston Busing Desegregation Project of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and as an ethnographer interested in questions of memory and urban politics.