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Sparks Fly Over Boston Decision To Cease Busing

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The Boston school committee last week approved a radical plan to revamp the district's governance structure and student-assignment process, an action that has split both the committee and portions of the community along racial lines.

Black committee members declined to support the plan, signaling an apparent end to what had been a low-key effort to terminate nearly 15 years of court-ordered busing.

In the weeks before the vote, the plan had become enmeshed in the racial politics that have a long history in Boston. And it now threatens to take the participants back into the federal courtroom they were hoping to avoid.

The only points of agreement that appear to remain between the two sides are that many of Boston's public schools are badly in need of educational and capital improvements and that the current busing plan is no longer working well.

The plan adopted last week calls for all seats in every elementary and middle school to be allocated on the basis of the ratio of white and nonwhite students in the school's geographic zone.

The plan also reduces the number of geographic zones in the district from seven to three, and uses these zones as the basis for a decentralized management structure. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1989.)

Parents will list their preferences from among some 20 elementary and six middle schools in each zone, and students will be assigned to schools based on the availability of seats for their racial group.

Students who do not receive one of their preferences will receive mandatory assignments in the nearest school with an open seat for their race, and will be placed on waiting lists for vacancies that occur in the oversubscribed programs.

Opinion is divided on what has motivated opposition to the plan, with some saying opponents have raised legitimate constitutional concerns and others maintaining that a political battle has been staged to secure more funding from state and city officials.

Both sides are currently negotiating changes to the plan with an eye on the calendar, because parents of next year's kindergartners, 1st graders, and 6th graders are scheduled under the plan to participate in their first school-selection process in May.

Among the moderating voices heard during the debate has been that of Superintendent of Schools Laval S. Wilson, whose own future in the district has become increasingly uncertain in the shifting of political support that has occurred during the debate over the reform plan. The school committee is scheduled to vote on an extension of his contract later this month.

"Clearly, the time has come on this student assignment plan," Mr. Wilson said in an interview last week.

But he admitted to being "very much troubled by the fact that there was a split between the white and black school-committee members."

"If black plaintiffs and black school-committee members have come forward to complain about the plan, there are issues of equity that haven't been addressed, and that concerns me," he said.

For the most part, the most influential opponents of the plan are not challenging the concept that parental choice could be used as a mechanism to improve desegegration in the Boston Public Schools.

Even that assumption, however, has been attacked by at least one black committee member, who describes the plan as a "thinly veiled return to the situation that got us into court in the first place."

"I don't like the idea of the marketplace as a substitute for adequate resources," said Jean M. McGuire, a member of the school committee who also directs the interdistrict desegregation efforts operated by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc., or metco.

"Choice is a smokescreen that will pull efforts, money, and resources away from making schools equitable for all children," she said. "The agenda of the Reagan and Bush Ad4ministrations and the Heritage Foundation is not the agenda of black America."

Lawyers for black plaintiffs contend that the lack of resources for implementing the plan will lead to the abandonment by white parents of some schools that are currently desgregated under the busing plan.

"In the absence of money being committed to equalize the schools, the educational footrace that this plan calls for will predictably result in some schools being left at the starting line because they are not perceived as being equal," said Thomas I. Atkins, one of the lawyers for the black plaintiffs.

Supporters of the plan are equally vehement in their defense of the plan. Among them is Michael Alves, a consultant who helped draft it based on his experience developing similar plans that have been successfully implemented in 10 other cities.

"I've never participated in the development of a plan that failed to pass constitutional muster," he said.

The racial divisions the plan has caused are "unfortunate," he said, attributing the criticism to politics rather than concern for minority children.

The plan "has triggered an ancient racial instinct in this city," he said. "The blacks had to oppose it because the whites favored it."

Among the details of the racial guidelines that have been criticized by the plaintiffs is the lack of controls on students leaving mandatory assignment as space opens up in their preferred programs. Critics say that is an avenue for whites to escape attending schools in low-income minority neighborhoods.

But the plan's supporters insist that the initial allocation of seats prevents resegregation, as long as parents and students of all races agree on which schools offer the best education in the system.

"What we don't know yet is how the racial guidelines will work," said Mr. Wilson.

The plan does not address the thornier details of special education or bilingual education, which are both subjects of separate lawsuits and court orders against the district. It also does not apply to student assignments to high schools, which will be the subject of further review by a commission established under the plan.

City officials, who have been active advocates of the plan and also control the district's funding, say that they are willing to consider changes. But they refuse to commit to providing the extra resources demanded by the plan's critics.

"You can't squeeze blood from a stone," said Ellen Guiney, education advisor to Mayor Raymond Flynn, who has also become the target of the minority leaders' ire on this issue.

The plaintiffs' lawyers, meanwhile, say they are prepared to seek a court injunction to block the plan if their concerns are not met.

"If there is great rigidity on the part of those that fathered this thing," said Mr. Atkins, "it will force us into a wrecking role. And we will play it with vigor."

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