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After Delays, Boston's 'Controlled Choice' Plan Emerges

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After more than a year of inaction, Boston educational and political leaders, led by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, are moving toward developing a new student-assignment plan to replace the controversial system imposed by a federal-court order in the 1970's.

The new plan, which is scheduled to be considered by the school committee after public hearings in late November or early December, is expected to resemble the "controlled choice" model used in neighboring Cambridge and elsewhere around the country.

Under that plan, city officials would divide the district into three zones. Parents could choose their children's school from among those in their zone, as long as the racial makeup of each school matches that of the zone.

"There is common agreement there will be a controlled-choice plan," said Ellen Guiney, Mayor Flynn's education adviser.

However, she and others added, city and school officials have yet to determine ways to improve schools to ensure that all those within a zone are roughly equivalent, as well as regulations for sorting students to ensure racial balance.

"The controlled-choice method does three things simultaneously," said Charles Willie, the Harvard University educator who is serving as a consultant to the city in developing the plan.

"It gives parents choice, it guarantees desegregation, and it enhances education," he said. "The problem we have found is that communities try to do one, or do all three in a serial way. That's inapppropriate. You have to do all three simultaneously."

The city's effort to develop a new student-assignment system began in 1985, when U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who had mandated a highly controversial busing plan in 1974, issued his final orders in the desegregation case.

Although Judge Garrity had retained control over student assignments, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in 1987 that the city no longer had to comply with the previous racial guidelines.

"That changed the whole ballfield," said Ms. Guiney, who noted that since Judge Garrity's original order, the district's student population had declined by 30,000, to 58,000, and the racial ratio had "flipped" from 70 percent white to 70 percent black.

Shortly before the appealsel10lcourt's ruling, Superintendent of Schools Laval S. Wilson, as part of his comprehensive school-improvement plan, proposed a new student-assignment plan that would allow some parental choice.

The school committee approved most of Mr. Wilson's plan but deferred action on the student-assignment proposal until after public hearings. But despite the court ruling, the school committee "didn't act on Wilson's plan," Ms. Guiney said. "They didn't take any steps to do anything different."

Last spring, she noted, a group of parents, expressing frustration at the lack of progress, approached Mayor Flynn to appeal for a student-assignment system that allowed choice. In response, he hired Mr. Willie--who along with another consultant, Michael Alves, has developed similar plans in Little Rock, San Jose, and Seattle--to draw up a new proposal.

Mr. Willie insisted that the consultants' relationship with the mayor was "not relevant."

"We pull the whole community together--the school committee, the mayor, parents, and the plaintiffs," he said. "We are excited that Boston, after its turmoil, has taken the high road and developed a planning device that will bring all those groups together."

"There is more agreement than most people recognize in Boston," Mr. Willie said.--rr

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