Spillane Issues Plan To End Court Involvement in Boston Schools

By Susan G. Foster — February 29, 1984 3 min read

Superintendent of Schools Robert R. Spillane of Boston has proposed a comprehensive long-range plan designed to improve the quality of the city’s schools and facilitate the complete withdrawal of U.S. District Judge Arthur W. Garrity Jr. from the administrative affairs of the school system.

If the superintendent’s plan is approved, it would bring to a close one of the nation’s most complex and legally entangled desegregation suits, involving about 400 orders over the past 10 years.

Until last year, Judge Garrity, who ruled in 1974 that the Boston public-school system unlawfully discriminated against its black students, has personnally supervised the system’s daily operations, requiring court approval of all decisions of the school committee that might affect the desegregation process.

Mr. Spillane’s proposed five-year plan would reduce the number of geographically based school districts from nine to six and would expand the number of magnet programs throughout the city. The proposal also calls for redrawing school-attendance zones in an attempt to promote neighborhood schools in those communities with integrated housing patterns, and modifying the student-assignment process.

Under the plan, each of the districts would offer a range of educational programs at each grade level. Elementary-school students would be assigned to schools located close to their homes and enrollment in the districtwide magnet schools would be voluntary.

The plan, which was developed by school-department personnel, is now being reviewed by the members of the Boston School Committee and will be considered during next month’s meeting.

The plan also would have to be approved by the Massachusetts Board of Education and Judge Garrity. The proposed schedule calls for the plan’s implementation during the 1985-86 school year.

The Court’s Withdrawal

In January 1983, Judge Garrity partially removed himself from the daily supervision of the schools and authorized the Massachusetts Board of Education to monitor the school district’s compliance with an estimated 400 remedial orders and to mediate disputes among the parties to the longstanding desegregation suit.

At that time, Judge Garrity established a two-year transitional peri-od, which he suggested could lead to the removal of the case from the court’s “active docket.” The Boston school system has been under the court’s control since 1974, two years after 14 black parents filed a class action against the school committee charging that black students in the city’s public schools were being denied equal educational opportunities.

Restructuring the Schools

John Coakley, the senior official in the school system’s desegregation office, said the proposal takes into account that enrollment has declined from about 83,000 students in 1974 to the current level of about 55,000 students and that 72 percent of the students are from minority groups.

“There’s been increasing dissatisfaction with the way children are assigned,” Mr. Coakley said. The state, he added, thinks city officials should strengthen some schools and attract white students to those schools.

“But there’s a limit to what you can do,” Mr. Coakley asserted. “Our plan doesn’t make any serious effort to draw students” who have left the schools back into the system, he said.

But it also does not discourage those parents who are considering bringing their children back to the schools, he added.

The plan, according to Mr. Coakley, would increase the number of magnet programs in neighborhood schools while reducing the number of such programs established by the court’s creation of a citywide magnet district.

Mr. Spillane argues that restructuring the school system would also ease district superintendents’ administrative responsibilities by giving them a comparable number of schools, staff members, and students to direct and supervise.

“From an educational and desegregative point of view,” he explained in the report, “the proposal will enable us to organize curricular and programmatic offerings in a manner designed to promote greater access than presently is the case.”

The proposal incorporates several educational-improvement initiatives, such as a citywide curriculum and a promotion policy, begun since Mr. Spillane took over as superintendent in 1981.

Also included are some elements of the report released last year by the Educational Planning Group, a committee of citizens and school officials convened by the school committee to assess the needs of the schools and develop a blueprint to address them.

A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 1984 edition of Education Week as Spillane Issues Plan To End Court Involvement in Boston Schools