A Brief(ish) History of Student Assignment in Boston, or, Unified Enrollment: Same S#!t, Different Day

Posted: December 11, 2015 by meghandoran in Uncategorized

We talked about student assignment through most of the 1970s (not to mention the decades leading up to ‘desegregation’), then had a bit of the respite in the 80s (though really Judge Garrity’s ‘consent decree’ was omnipresent) before making another major change at the end of the decade. In the 1990s it was all about racial quotas and algorithms. After two more attempts in 2004 and 2009, BPS finally made another major change to how its students are assigned to schools in 2014. And, though that process was highly contested, many BPS parents and advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief. We could finally get to the business of improving the schools for everyone rather than continuing to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic (and deciding who gets in the life boats), right?

Not so fast, Boston: apparently it’s that time again. Not two years later the Walsh administration avows that we’re all clamoring for another conversation on student assignment – this time for a unified enrollment plan which wraps charter schools into the pre-existing public assignment system. Though the mostly poorly attended information sessions so far have not demonstrated this public enthusiasm, Walsh once again rests on the silent majority that wants this (despite this argument not working out so well for him when he used it to justify the city’s Olympic bid, and indeed not working out well for Nixon when he used it to justify the continuation of the Vietnam war). The compact appears to be a done deal, another classic case of paternalism known in the planning community as “DAD” – decide, announce, defend (h/t to Allentza Michel for providing this acronym). Nonetheless, opposition to the plan appears to be heating up.

To many, opposition to a Unified Enrollment plan by BPS parents and advocates looks nothing short of obstructionist. Won’t this simply make it easier for parents so they don’t have to do multiple lotteries? Prevent creaming and hold charters more accountable? As always, the devil’s in the details which are at this point few and far between. Skepticism about the promise of unified enrollment comes not just from this lack of details however, but from a perspective that is both historical and looking to the bigger picture.

The historical perspective suggests that student assignment doesn’t really improve access to quality education for our most disadvantaged students. Though there was a certain logic to the idea that a desegregated system would have to distribute resources more evenly, this isn’t exactly what happened following the Garrity decision in 1974. Institutional racism proved much more pernicious and, not surprisingly in hindsight, the most advantaged families continued to receive the best educations – whether in the city or outside of it. I for one am glad I didn’t come of age in a school system that overtly segregated schools and diverted the best resources to white schools, and am therefore grateful for desegregation. At the same time I’m aware that the opportunity gap between white students and black and Latino students persists into the present and that desegregation fell far short of its promise.

When the Federal Court finally withdrew from the assignment system in the 1980s, satisfied that the days of overt discrimination were done, the city had to face the reality that quality schools were not available in all neighborhoods. The solution was to continue busing students in large zones – so that students in neighborhoods without good schools would at least have a chance to go to a quality school. Once again perhaps not the ideal way to confront the problems of residential segregation and institutional racism, but still a solution with a certain logic. And once again, student assignment just didn’t work out that way, so that when the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission studied the three zone plan during this most recent round of reform, they found that the city’s least advantaged students were being bused the farthest and still not reaching quality at the other end.

In the meantime the plan in 1989 had been to increase the number of zones when school quality improved across the city. By 2012 we were still waiting for that quality when Mayor Menino announced it was time to abandon the three zone system once and for all. We needed closer to home schools quality or no, because, the city claimed, that’s what parents wanted. A chorus of voices arose in response to say, ‘wait a second, why are talking about assignment rather than a comprehensive plan to improve school quality for students in all neighborhoods of all racial and class backgrounds? What happened to all those promises?’ Still the city pushed forward with the home-based assignment plan, making more promises for both a better measure of quality and an equity analysis of the new plan. Two years later the new quality metric has yet to be implemented (it’s coming, we’re assured) and MIT argues they need three years of data before telling us anything about equity.  We have no idea how the new system is working, we still have highly uneven quality across the system, and we’re being asked to talk about a new system? Any student of history, as Mayor Walsh should be, would not be surprised that people aren’t falling over themselves to roll out the welcome mat for Unified Enrollment.

But you have to combine that historical understanding with a look at the bigger picture to understand some of the outright hostility towards the proposal. Unified Enrollment is a Gates-funded initiative, which those concerned about issues of funding for PUBLIC education and the privatization of our schools have much to worry about. In other cities such as Denver, Newark, and Philadelphia, unified enrollment plans have led directly to public school closures and an increase in charters. The debate continues about whether charters are the answer for low-income students of color otherwise stuck in struggling district schools, but the evidence is certainly not a clear cut yes. I, along with many others, am not willing to give up public resources to privatization on a hope and a prayer, because the beneficent new captains of (service) industry of the likes of Gates, the Walton family, and Zuckerberg tell us we should.

Student assignment is about a lot of things: real estate values, residential racial and class segregation, the distribution of educational resources across the city, parental choices and lack of choices among others. Forty-plus years of struggles over how students get sorted into schools should teach us, however, that technical assignment processes are not a good way to ensure the most vulnerable students in our education system have access to a high quality education. Of all the assignment systems we’ve tried – a race-based neighborhood system, desegregation, ‘controlled choice,’ and ‘home-based assignment,’ the bottom line has remained that students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English Language Learners all continue to struggle to have their needs met while privileged students thrive. Forgive me if I’m highly skeptical that a new system, Unified Enrollment, pushed by deep-pocketed ‘reformers’ rather than a grassroots movement of families, will have any significant impact on this status quo. This isn’t to say there aren’t some amazing things happening in Boston Public Schools – there are dedicated teachers, families, students, and school communities working with limited resources to make amazing things happen. It is to say, however, that it’s time to make a bigger pie bringing more resources to students in public schools, and to fix a broken system plagued by racial and class disparities. That’s what we want to talk about. Not assignment, AGAIN.


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