Why the Only Path to Equity is Quality
During the school choice reform process, much of the discussion centered around equity of access to quality. But can any plan actually achieve equity in a system where school quality varies widely and underperforming schools are concentrated in poor neighborhoods?
Peng Shi, who developed the "home-based" model now under consideration by the school committee, had originally proposed a plan he said would guarantee access to quality. This was an intriguing plan that balanced equity and proximity quite well. The plan was scrapped because there were logistical problems with implementing it in a district like Boston. The plan did indeed offer what Shi calls "equal access to quality for every student in a quantitatively precise way." But even this plan would not have been truly equitable in Boston.
Why is it not possible to construct an equitable plan given the current state of the district? There are several obstacles that prevent this.
First is the ability of some families to opt out of the system. If families don't like their BPS options or don't like their assigned schools, there are many other options available including charters, METCO, parochial schools, private schools, and moving to another district. While a wide range of families take advantage of these options, only families of means are guaranteed to be able to choose a quality school outside of BPS. Because opt-outs often happen after the assignment process, they can cause an inequity of attendance even when there is equity of assignment.
The second problem is that not all families choose schools in the first assignment round which ends in early February. Currently around 80% of families choose in the first round. Those who choose in subsequent rounds are disproportionately African American, Latino, and low-income. Not surprisingly, most of the high-quality seats are gone after the first round so seats assigned in subsequent rounds are in lower-performing schools overall. All of this data can be found in Appendix B of Peng Shi's December 6 presentation to the EAC. BPS is working on ways to reduce the number of families who choose after the first round, but it will probably be impossible to eliminate the problem completely.
Finally, there's the question of proximity. If we did manage to devise a plan that equitably assigned children to quality schools, some children would have to travel much longer distances than others to reach their school. Based on the current distribution of quality schools, poor children and children of color would be more likely to travel long distances. While their families may gladly trade proximity for quality, it would still be unfair that some children had to make that trade-off while others did not.
None of this is to say that we should not strive for equity in any assignment plan. We know that the current plan is highly inequitable and analysis clearly showed that the choices we make in any new plan can have a huge impact on equity. However, we need to be realistic about what can be achieved through an assignment plan alone.
As many of us have been saying throughout this process, our number one priority must be to make all schools high quality schools. This is the only way we can ever hope to achieve a truly equitable assignment system.