EAC Meeting Review - 1/14/2013
The meeting started with a presentation by Dr. Tayfun Sönmez, an economics professor from BC on the effects of walk zone priority. A study by professors at BC and MIT and others shows that walk zone only results in slightly more students ending up in walk zone schools than an algorithm that doesn't give any walk zone priority. Their research was on K1 and K2 seats assigned in the first assignment round from 2009 through 2012. For K2, they find that 48.5% of kids assigned to schools live in the walk zone. If BPS eliminated walk zone priority, 47.3% would come from the walk zone. This is a suprisingly small difference. K1 also shows a very small difference.
This phenomenon is due to the order in which walk zone and open seats are assigned. After assigning siblings, BPS first assigns the rest of the available walk zone only seats to the students in the walk zone with the best lottery numbers. They then assign the rest of the seats to the remaining students with the best lottery numbers regardless of where they live. Because the walk zone students with the best lottery numbers have already been assigned, few of them have good enough numbers to get one of the open seats. Also, with the current large zones, there will often be more non-walk zone students than walk zone students applying for seats in a given school. This makes it particularly unlikely that walk zone students will get any of the open seats.
This is an important point because it means that any plan that increases the percentage of walk zone students competing for seats at schools will likely increase the percentage of walk zone kids attending schools regardless of any walk zone priority. I spoke to Dr. Sönmez after the meeting and he confirmed this. They are looking at how this would play out in various proposed plans.
Dr. Sönmez proposed three possible changes to the way walk zone priority is currently implemented. One would be to assign all the open seats first, then the 50% allocated to walk zone students. This would significantly increase the percentage of walk zone students getting seats because kids with walk zone preference would better compete for the open seats. The second option would be to just alternate assignments between walk zone and open seats. This would result in a little over 50% of seats going to walk zone kids. The third method would be to assign 25% of seats to walk zone kids, then 50% to all kids, then the last 25% to walk zone kids again. This would result in something very close to 50/50 allocation of seats under the current plan.
BPS said that unless the EAC makes a specific recommendation in this area, they will go with the 25-50-25 approach because it gets closest to a 50/50 allocation. I'm disappointed that BPS is once again putting the cart before the horse on walk zone priority. We don't know yet how walk zone priority will impact the final plan. In fact, I think it's likely that more than 50% of seats will go to walk zone kids in a new plan, even without any walk zone priority.
I have another concern about this presentation, which is that the numbers just don't add up for me. I did a quick check of the data provided by BPS for school year 2011-2012. According to this data set, around 55% of elementary grade students (K1-5) are walk zone kids. Also, BPS data shows that in round 1, 65% of parents put a walk zone school first. This should mean that in most schools at least 50% of students are from the walk zone. I will research this further and post more on this issue soon.
The committee discussed their meeting schedule over the next few weeks. The only firm date is next Wednesday, 1/23 from 6:00 to 8:30 at Suffolk, 73 Tremont St., when MIT will present their demand model analysis of the proposed plans. I suspect that they will also propose some modifications to what's been proposed based on what they've learned. They will then meet the first and/or second week of February for further discussion and a final vote. Apparently 2/14 has been ruled out as a meeting date, but nothing has been settled. There may also be meetings on 1/28 and/or 1/30. The committee does still need to finish their recommendation memo and these dates could be used for that purpose. There is a plan for a single meeting to get community feedback on the proposed plans between the 1/23 meeting and the EAC's final vote. The fact that there would be only one community meeting received strong negative reaction from members of the public in the audience. It really doesn't seem sufficient especially since most people have never seen these plans and there will likely be significant changes to them on or after 1/23.
The committee spent a little time at the end of the meeting to continue their discussion on their memo of recommendations to the school committee. There was some discussion of the BPS quadrant analysis that they're currently using to evaluate school quality. Hardin Coleman suggested using a different method to represent this data. Other committee members asked him to submit his proposal in writing at the next meeting. There was also some discussion on a set of recommendations by EAC member Kelly Bates.
All materials from this meeting have now been posted on bostonschoolchoice.com.