Meetings with John Connolly and Aaron Michlewitz
Last night I had an opportunity to have separate conversions with Aaron Michlewitz and John Connolly about school choice and other issues. The discussion with Michlewitz was brief and happened when he made the mistake of knocking on my door while canvassing the neighborhood for Elizabeth Warren. He asked if I had any issues on my mind and guess what I managed to come up with? I explained where the process stands and told him what I was really looking for was more time to develop the plans that are currently on the table. I'd love to see elected officials put some pressure on BPS, the EAC and City Hall to modify the timeline, even if it's by a few weeks. He was very receptive, but of course it's a city issue not a state issue so I'm not sure where it will go.
The second meeting was with John Connolly who has been having meetings with small groups of parents all over the city for several months now. John is the chair of the City Council Education Committee and education is clearly his number one issue. As you probably know, he also led the effort to develop and promote the Quality Choice Plan. While the EAC doesn't seem to be considering that plan in its entirety, they are very seriously considering a plan from MIT PhD student Peng Shi which incorporates the four closest schools idea from the Quality Choice Plan.
The group ended up being all parents from the Hurley School who are never shy about sharing their opinions. We went around the room and everyone talked about their experiences with the student assignment system, the Hurley School, and BPS in general. Most were happy in the school, but a few had run into significant issues in getting their children what they need. I would say it really comes down to differentiated instruction. We need to do a better job of helping students with special needs, students who are fairly close to average, and students who are gifted learn at their own level in the same classroom. John said that his daughter's classroom at the Trotter is doing a great job of this.
Talk turned to student assignment and John talked about his plan. He also talked about the problems in the current system which really isn't delivering on any goal other than choice (at least theoretical choice, as in you have lots of schools to choose from but you may have a very small chance of getting in to some of them). John and several others felt there were really too many choices. With over 20 K1 choices in a zone it's pretty difficult to evaluate all of those schools. Parents who don't have a car or work multiple jobs will have a particularly difficult time visiting multiple schools. It might be a win/win to adopt a system with a good amount of choice, but much less than we have now. As for other factors, the current system isn't delivering on equity, diversity, or sending kids to schools close to home. I agreed and said that the current system is so bad that it should be possible to craft a plan that increases all of these factors with the exception of choice.
I made the argument that more time is needed for the EAC to evaluate and select a plan. John felt that the timeline will not change and we should spend our energy on making sure the EAC makes a good choice in the time available. All agreed that we should encourage the EAC to continue to think creatively and not be bound by the five plans created by BPS. There was no support in the room for any of those plans. Everyone was encouraged to e-mail email@example.com with their concerns. Some said they would also write to the Mayor to ask him to extend the deadline for the EAC to submit a plan.
At the end of the meeting we came back to quality. John said that while everyone has a different definition of a quality school, there are some baseline attributes of any quality school. One is an excellent principal. I said that I agreed completely and if there was one thing I could do it would be to put an excellent principal in every school. He said he does not think that is difficult to do, but it requires the will to remove failing principals. He thinks BPS is currently too slow to replace poor principals.
John spent well over two hours with us and probably would have stayed even longer but it was clear that everyone was exhausted. I'd like to thank both John and Aaron Michlewitz for taking the time to listen to their constituents on this issue.
Hey Josh, why is the BPS so committed to using zones? The XYZ report recognized that in theory a no-zone plan would be more responsive to future changes in school quality, demographics, and density. Both Connolly and Peng Shi's plans forgo zones altogether. I suppose zones are a nice visual representation of a boundary, and an indicator of the schools within it, but many of the plans involve grouping boundaries, allowing cohorts of parents to travel across boundaries, or allowing parents to select a school in another zone but within walking distance of their home. What have you heard?
And is the EAC gravitating away from zoned plans, in general?
I think it's about planning for capacity. As long as they have kids and schools in the same zone they know whether they will have enough seats (though walk zones that cross zone lines can complicate that). I think that's one potential flaw in the Quality Choice Plan. Trying to guarantee a seat in one of your four closest schools is difficult because the concentration of kids in the city doesn't always match the concentration of school seats.
Peng's plan can probably deal with that through pairing, but it's still probably harder to match supply and demand than in a simple zoned plan.
The committee definitely liked the idea of a non-zoned plans for exactly the reasons you note. Once you draw those lines it's very hard to change them. They're still looking at both options and we're still awaiting Peng's analysis of his new plan, but that's where it stands right now.