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Late assignment
Boston’s efforts to balance school choice with a neighborhood system are behind schedule and politically explosive

WHEN A 14-MEMBER task force convened earlier this year to seek parents’ input on revamping Boston’s student-assignment plan — the system that determines which of the city’s public schools children from kindergarten to eighth grade attend — its chairman, Ted Landsmark, suggested that the group would make a recommendation to the Boston School Committee by late May. But when that tentative deadline came, the task force announced it needed more time to ponder the problem; six weeks later, it’s still pondering.

Meanwhile, District Six city councilor John Tobin and his at-large colleague Felix Arroyo have recently proposed student-assignment plans of their own — Tobin’s more developed, Arroyo’s less so. The councilors aren’t undercutting the task force, which urged the public to weigh in on everything from comprehensive plans to smaller-scale suggestions, but Tobin and Arroyo have complicated matters by floating alternatives publicly before the task force issues its findings.

With the Democratic National Convention dominating the headlines, these new wrinkles — and the broader implications of the student-assignment question — have received scant attention of late. But come September, the potential overhaul of Boston’s school system is sure to become a hot topic around the city. And between these recent plot twists and the emotionally fraught history of busing in Boston (see "Bus Stop," News and Features, February 13), chances are good the conversation will be both confusing and heated.

Further, a new plan could become the subject of disruptive legal challenges that might have a negative impact on Boston mayor Tom Menino’s run for a fourth term. What’s more, student-assignment policy could determine the city’s racial make-up and shape its politics for decades to come. In short, there’s a lot at stake.

THE STILL-UNFINISHED school-assignment-plan review process has been lengthy and involved. At the beginning of this year, the task-force members — all appointed by Menino, who backed a new assignment plan in his 2004 State of the City address (see "Between the Lines," News and Features, January 23) — held 10 public forums around Boston neighborhoods to survey which factors parents deem significant for school selection. The results weren’t unexpected. All parents want their children to receive quality educations, but they differ on the question of choice versus proximity. Some prize having their children schooled close to home. Others want the freedom to send their children to the best schools in Boston, even if they’re on the other side of the city. Of course, more choice inevitably results in fewer seats available for neighborhood kids.

Balancing these competing interests has proven to be a time-consuming process. After the first round of forums, the task force spent several weeks mulling over the collected data; it ultimately formulated seven assignment plans, each of which counterpoises parents’ competing priorities in a different way. These seven plans, as well as the current student-assignment framework — which splits Boston into three zones, gives half the seats in each school to kids who live within walking distance, and metes out the rest to students living elsewhere in the zone — were then outlined and analyzed by the task force at 16 additional community meetings in April and May. "Voluminous is the only term I can use that seems fair," Landsmark says of the information the all-volunteer task force has gathered and parsed. "It’s a voluminous amount of data. Our task has been extremely difficult."

Despite this painstaking approach, the school-assignment-reform process appeared to be foundering this spring. On May 28, a Boston Globe story hinted at mounting tension between the task force and the School Committee, which had planned to vote on the task force’s recommendation by September and to implement any changes at the outset of the 2005-’06 school year. A Globe reporter quoted Elizabeth Reilinger, chair of the Boston School Committee, voicing what seemed like frustration that the task force hadn’t mentioned its deadline change to the committee and the School Department. The story also paraphrased Reilinger suggesting that the School Committee and School Department might need to expedite the task force’s deliberations, and Landsmark saying that his group needed more information from school officials before it could continue its work. It sounded like the process was breaking down — an impression bolstered when the task force subsequently closed its meetings to the public.

Today, though, Landsmark and Reilinger insist that this impression was incorrect. As Landsmark tells it, any intimations of friction stemmed from the fact that the story was reported immediately after the task force’s May 27 meeting, before he and Reilinger had a chance to talk. "It was premature," says Landsmark. "That’s the reason we decided to go into executive session." Reilinger, in turn, insists she’d anticipated the delay. "The minute the task force wasn’t going to be able to get its report to us in May, I immediately knew we were going to be looking at this fall," she says. "This may have been one of those stories that was more smoke than story." (Carolyn Ryan, the Globe’s Metro editor, says the paper received no requests for correction and stands by its story.)

Even if, as Landsmark and Reilinger maintain, suggestions of tension between the task force and the School Committee were off-base, the task force and its mission have had no shortage of detractors. "What you have here is a group of people with good intentions who have been brought together to do what may be an impossible task," says Kim Janey, Massachusetts Advocates for Children’s project coordinator for Boston school reform. "Doing these community forums was a good thing, but what you heard from the community was, ‘We want quality schools for our children.’ But the task force’s charge is to come up with a new assignment plan, so they’re having a difficult time reconciling those two things. If you had quality schools in all neighborhoods, these assignment issues — busing, boundaries, all those things — would become secondary and less important to folks."

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Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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