Panel Opposes Return to Neighborhood Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — December 03, 1997 4 min read
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A task force in Boston that tackled the politically volatile issue of race-based busing is calling for only minor changes in the district’s student-assignment system, angering proponents of a return to neighborhood schools.

Rather than scuttling the “controlled choice” plan that has been in place since 1988, the panel called for improving educational quality throughout the 63,600-student system and urged the district to crack down on schools that parents consistently seek to avoid.

District at a Glance: Boston

Superintendent: Thomas W. Payzant

K-12 enrollment: 63,600

K-12 student racial and ethnic composition:
Black: 49%
Hispanic: 26%
White: 16%
Asian-American: 9%

Number of schools: 125

“Providing quality neighborhood schools that are available to everyone without segregation is worthy of long-term consideration,” the task force says in its Nov. 19 report. “However, it is simply not possible in Boston in 1997 to implement a return to neighborhood schools.”

The report comes as a growing number of urban school systems are scaling back or eliminating race-based busing. These moves follow U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1991 and 1992 that made it easier for districts formerly under desegregation orders to reinstitute neighborhood schools.

Failed Experiment?

The Boston school board named the task force last summer amid an unsuccessful campaign by busing opponents to place a nonbinding referendum on neighborhood schools on last month’s citywide ballot. The debate surrounding that drive evoked the bitter conflicts over busing in the 1970s that made Boston a symbol of Northern resistance to forced integration.

Leaders of the anti-busing campaign fiercely deny that they favor resegregation or are interested mainly in luring white students back to the system. The district’s enrollment is now 84 percent nonwhite, compared to just 28 percent 30 years ago.

“The United States, and Boston in particular, have come to the realization that this social experiment called busing did more harm to the black community and to the inner city than anything else,” said Ann F. Walsh, the president of Boston’s Children First, a citizens’ group formed last summer to push for neighborhood schools.

Peggy Davis-Mullen, a City Council member and former school board member who has led the charge for neighborhood schools, said last week that she never expected support from the task force because it was “handpicked” by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who opposed the referendum and appoints the school board.

James Fraser, a co-chairman of the task force, said its members actually held diverse views, but concluded that reverting to neighborhood schools would be “foolish and shortsighted” at this time without further analysis of the costs and benefits.

The task force cited several obstacles to such a move, including the cost of creating classrooms in neighborhoods where schools have closed or have insufficient capacity--a problem common in cities that desegregated through cross-town busing. The panel estimated that it would cost $400 million to build enough new elementary schools to accommodate a return to neighborhood schools.

The panel also said requiring students to attend schools within walking distance would erode parental choice. The report stressed that most parents do not select the closest school as their first choice, but that those who do usually get their wish.

“It’s so easy in education to jump on the bandwagon of the quick fix,” said Mr. Fraser, a professor of history and education at Northeastern University in Boston. “What we’ve got to focus our energies on is making all of the schools a heck of a lot better.”

Shake-Ups Suggested

To that end, the report urges the district to start using parental choice as an accountability tool.

Schools that are consistently “underchosen” should be scrutinized by outside intervention teams to determine why they are unpopular, the panel says. The teams would recommend “appropriate action,” it says, ranging from “a better means of informing parents of the school’s strengths to a complete reconstitution of the school.”

Reconstitution, which is catching on in urban districts across the country but has not been used in Boston, involves transferring much of a school’s staff in hopes of creating a climate more conducive to student success. The shake-ups have provoked an outcry from teachers’ unions in most places they have been tried. (“Reconstitution Gaining New Momentum,” Sept. 24, 1997.)

Citing the tight time line it faced, the task force wants to continue its work. For now, it is calling for modest changes in the way students are assigned to schools, including filling open seats earlier when there are no applicants of the racial or ethnic group for which the slots have been set aside; letting students go to schools that are close to home but out of their official attendance zones; and encouraging more high schools to develop special themes. These changes would build on related modifications made to the system this year.

The school board was expected to consider the report at a meeting scheduled for this week. Schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said through an aide that he supports the report’s thrust but would not comment on it in detail until then.


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