In Boston, a city where the struggle to desegregate public education through large-scale busing has left deep scars, school leaders are, once again, grappling with new ways of assigning students to schools that are closer to home.
At the same time, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who controls Boston's 57,000-student school system, is pushing a slate of state legislative changes he says are necessary to ensure that every neighborhood in the city can offer enough viable schooling options for families under a new student-assignment plan.
Among those changes: expanding the intervention authority currently reserved for the state's lowest-performing schools to include other struggling schools and lifting a cap on the number of charter schools that report directly to district leaders. If approved by state lawmakers, the mayor's legislation would affect districts and charter schools across Massachusetts.
Twenty years after court-ordered desegregation ended in Boston, the city's current initiative to change the student-assignment process in a district that is nearly 90 percent minority is raising cautious hopes among supporters that the district can finally craft a plan that will end the busing of nearly 65 percent of kindergartners through 8th graders to schools outside their neighborhoods.
The Boston effort—unfolding since Mr. Menino's call for an overhaul more than a year ago—also underscores how the tough questions some urban districts faced for decades in trying to achieve racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic balance in schools have shifted to equally vexing ones around how to provide high-performing schools in every neighborhood.
"We've always said, 'Forget about drawing lines until you deal with the quality issue,' " said Myriam Ortiz, the executive director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, a nonprofit group that organizes city parents to advocate for change in the public schools. "I think we may finally be at that point."
Zones vs. Distance
Under Boston's current assignment process—nearly a decade old—the city is divided into three sprawling geographic zones that offer as many as 20 choices each for K-8 schooling to families that live within those zones, said Matthew Wilder, a district spokesman. The district uses a race-blind algorithm to assign students within their zones but keeps socioeconomic factors in the mix. Nearly three-quarters of students qualify for federally subsidized meals.
Students can attend high school anywhere in the city and that would not change under three new assignment scenarios being considered by an advisory panel overseeing the process.