I commend Professor Shelley Kimelberg and Mr. Chase M. Billingham for not only bringing the topic of racial segregation in schools to light but also for their long-term research on the issue (“BPS must not ignore racial segregation,” Bay State Banner, Oct. 11, 2012).
Even if it isn’t stated as explicitly in discussions or reports, I believe that racial integration still is a priority for Boston Public School system and for Mayor Thomas Menino. However, perhaps it seems like less of a priority and does not get explicitly mentioned as often because the students of BPS are now 87 percent students of color.
There is certainly a common perception, with some but not complete justification, that busing in BPS today is primarily a matter of moving lots of kids of color around the city to schools that are mostly kids of color. To the extent that such is the case, busing is not helping to desegregate schools in many or most cases.
The priority that is more often explicitly stated is giving all students access to high-quality schools. However, if there is a shortage of high-quality schools, busing itself does not increase overall access to high-quality schools.
For every student who gets bused to a school that is higher quality than the school closest to his or her home, there is another student getting bused to a school that is not of high quality.
To the extent that any middle-class white student gets assigned to a school perceived as lower-quality, odds are high that the parents of that student will pull them out of BPS entirely. They either send them to a private school, charter school, or move out of Boston. That certainly does not contribute to racial integration.
Decreasing the extent of busing in BPS strikes the justice nerves of many who remember the bloody struggles for desegregation. However, we need to think objectively (and research as Kimelberg and Billingham do) about whether decreased busing will lead to increased segregation or not.
The part of Menino’s thinking that makes sense to me is that having a higher percentage of students attending the schools closest to their homes has a host of benefits, including some that may contribute to higher quality schools.
Parent and family involvement is certainly easier when students attend schools closer to home. Neighborhood/community unity is also enhanced when all the kids of a neighborhood attend the same schools. There is also the issue of the negative effects on children of enduring long commutes on buses every morning and afternoon. Financially, money saved by decreased busing becomes available for other priorities.
One more advantage of increasing neighborhood assignment is making it much more transparent when a neighborhood’s schools lack sufficient quality. Critics of the potential change say there are currently areas of the city that do not have any quality schools. That issue is less transparent and more hidden because the kids of that area are attending schools throughout their zone, rather than just in their immediate neighborhood.
If they did all attend their neighborhood schools, the lack of quality would be much more of a neighborhood concern, priority, outrage, etc.
I have not yet personally read the various options proposed for changing the student assignment method. But one suggestion would be to start by allowing every student who wants to attend the school closest to his or her home to attend that school.
The current method of student assignment is way too complex. Even the most well-versed BPS officials cannot easily explain it. I can’t explain it. How do we expect most parents to understand it, much less navigate it?
John Sarvey is the Executive Director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.