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Community Voices: BPS must not ignore racial segregation

Shelley McDonough Kimelberg and Chase M. Billingham

Boston Public Schools (BPS) Superintendent Carol Johnson and her staff recently released a range of proposals aimed at overhauling the way that students in Boston are assigned to schools.

In formulating these plans, BPS drew on information they gathered at a series of public forums to inform residents about their plans to reorganize the city’s school assignment process and to hear residents’ concerns. Issues ranging from academic quality to school safety to transportation were all taken into consideration in the creation of the alternative assignment system. As BPS has prepared and unveiled these proposals, however, it has become increasingly clear that there is much confusion around how the current system works.

The current student assignment process is extremely complex, and this complexity is mainly due to a factor that has received little attention in public discussions of the proposed plans. That factor is racial segregation.

In a report that BPS released in August on ways to improve parental school choice, racial segregation was not mentioned at all, despite the fact that the current system has its roots in efforts to desegregate Boston’s schools.

The original version of the current system was implemented in 1988, 14 years after Judge Arthur Garrity ordered the busing of students across the city as a drastic strategy for integrating the schools. The U.S. Court of Appeals determined that, over that time, Boston’s schools had become as racially integrated as they possibly could, and BPS was allowed to implement a new student assignment plan.

But the Court required that any new student assignment plan must not intentionally re-segregate the schools. The “controlled choice” plan begun in 1988, therefore, took deliberate steps to ensure that the student population in all of the schools more or less reflected the racial composition of Boston’s student population.

BPS accomplished this goal through a range of tools, including the continuation of a mandate that 35 percent of seats in the city’s exam schools go to minority students.

Because of several legal challenges, these racial considerations were weakened over time, until finally, in 1999, race and ethnicity were dropped altogether as criteria for determining where students would attend school. The fundamental student assignment system was left in place, but its very reason for existing — to maintain racial integration — was eliminated.

In our research, we have traced trends in racial and ethnic segregation between black, white, Asian, and Hispanic students in BPS from 1993 through 2011. While the level of school segregation has remained roughly constant between most racial and ethnic groups over that period, segregation between blacks and whites has increased slowly but steadily.

The reasons for this shift are varied and complex. Increased suburbanization of both whites and blacks has played a role, as has the rise of other alternative schooling options, such as charter schools.

Still, we cannot ignore the fact that as BPS has dropped race as an explicit consideration in student assignment, the district has reversed the gains that it had previously made toward achieving the goal of integration.

Boston has a long and difficult racial history, and no one wants to return to the troubled days of the 1970s, when students feared for their safety and Boston gained national infamy for its racially hostile climate.

But we must not ignore the goal of providing an equitable, racially and socioeconomically integrated school environment for every public school student in Boston. The fact that this issue did not receive more attention during the committee’s public meetings and in the presentation of the new proposals seems to indicate that, at present, integration is not a priority.

Sociologists, psychologists, and educational experts have thoroughly documented the widespread benefits students gain from integrated schooling experiences. Numerous studies have shown that, in integrated schools, achievement gaps shrink, students feel safer in the classroom, and children develop more nuanced cultural understanding, a critical skill in today’s global economy. Integrated schools are better places for children to learn, and they are necessary for preparing our children to live in multicultural cities like Boston.

Debates will continue and many difficult issues will be raised as the mayor, the superintendent, and the school committee work to overhaul the city’s student assignment plan. As they undertake this critically important task, they must not lose sight of the value of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic integration in the city’s schools.

Shelley McDonough Kimelberg is assistant professor and Chase M. Billingham is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University.

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