Boston Board Votes To End Era of Race-Based Assignment

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In a move widely seen as the end of an era, Boston school officials have decided that this coming school year will be the last in which they use race as a factor in determining where students go to school.

Facing pressure from a lawsuit by white parents and advocates of neighborhood schools, the city's school board voted 5-2 last month to adopt a race-blind admissions policy starting in September 2000.

The city has been using a "controlled choice" system of assigning students for the past decade, since shortly after a federal judge ended his supervision of a desegregation plan that had led to violent clashes over busing in the mid-1970s.

"It was pretty clear that using race in student assignment was not going to withstand court scrutiny," Elizabeth Reilinger, the chairwoman of the school board, said last week. "We didn't think we had a viable case."

Board members and Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant concluded that it was better to switch than fight in part because of the generally dim view federal judges have taken of race-based policies in recent years. And last fall, the district's long-running legal battle to defend race-conscious admissions at the prestigious Boston Latin School ended in failure when a federal appeals court struck down the policy.

But some critics faulted the district for failing to stand up in court for the continued use of race.

"The lawsuit was frivolous and without merit," said Charles V. Willie, an architect of the controlled-choice plan and a professor emeritus at Harvard University's graduate school of education. "I'm mad as hell at a school board that says, 'We can't win.' "

Case Not Over

While the board vote on July 14 was designed to help settle the lawsuit, as of late last week the plaintiffs had not called it quits. The two sides were scheduled to square off in federal court this week.

"They've changed the policy, but not enough," said Chester Darling, the plaintiffs' lawyer. The suit was filed in June by Boston's Children First, a group that advocates neighborhood schools and considers the current assignment unconstitutionally discriminatory, and four white families who say their children were harmed by that system.

The plaintiffs' goal, Mr. Darling said, "is the elimination of race as a classification tool for anything--for seats, programs, schools, anything--and of course we want to achieve it right now."

In recent court papers, the plaintiffs argued that the district should be required to assign students entering kindergarten and 1st grade next month on a race-blind basis. The district, for its part, is asking the judge to throw out the case.

Although the immediate impetus for the policy switch came from a group committed to restoring neighborhood schools, district leaders emphasized that their move would not do that.

In recent years, the district has modified the controlled-choice plan to give greater enrollment preference to youngsters who live within walking distance of a school. And early this year, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints the school board, announced his qualified support for eventually returning to neighborhood schools, as long as they are of comparable quality systemwide and some parental choice among schools is preserved.

But Mr. Menino and Mr. Payzant have stressed that before that can happen, they must complete their plans to build new schools in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods where there are large numbers of children but too few schools to serve them.

Further Changes Possible

Mr. Willie predicted that dropping race as a factor in student placement would have the practical effect of restoring a neighborhood-school system--at least in areas with sought-after schools--because of the preference given to students living near them.

He said a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students--many of whom have no schools nearby--would be shut out of desirable elementary and middle schools.

Districtwide enrollment is now 49 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white, 9 percent Asian-American, and less than 1 percent American Indian.

Mr. Willie disputed the argument that the city's neighborhoods have become so much more demographically diverse that allowing more students to attend school close to home would not result in de facto resegregation.

"That's a lie," he said.

Ms. Reilinger said the school board was aware of such concerns and would revisit the entire assignment policy in the months ahead.

For example, she said, the board may have to consider reserving a certain percentage of seats in each school for those beyond walking distance.

In the meantime, district leaders predict that dropping race as a factor in the placement process will not have a dramatic effect. If the first round of the assignment process for this coming school year had been race-blind, they say, fewer than 1,000 of more than 13,000 students vying for spots in kindergarten or 1st, 6th, or 9th grade would have been affected.

Moreover, district officials say that their analysis suggests that the policy change will not sharply increase racial imbalance. Of the 129 schools systemwide, they say, only eight would have seen enrollment swings involving more than 10 white students, had race been eliminated in this year's process.

"There is no way statistically that you're going to be able to resegregate the system," Ms. Reilinger said.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 5

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Boston Board Votes To End Era of Race-Based Assignment
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